We Have Come So Far In Terms Of Menstrual Hygiene Issues But Not Far Enough – The Battle To End Period Poverty Still Continues

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“Menstrual blood is the only source of blood that is not traumatically induced. Yet in modern society, this is the most hidden blood, the one so rarely spoken of and almost never seen, except privately by women.”  ~Judy Grahn

Do you remember the story of when you first got your periods? Well, if I was to describe mine it would be tragic, embarrassing and emotional. I know that this is the narrative for a lot of girls and women out there due to lack of information, knowledge and access to proper resources.

I can’t say that my periods have become easier to handle over the years. Every month is a different discomfort that I would do anything to get rid of. Nausea, menstrual cramps, vomiting, intense headaches… there’s always something. But what I can say is that the access to menstrual products makes the process more manageable and comfortable. For me, this is a privilege and I recognize that not everyone has this kind of privilege.

In fact, data from the Ministry of Education indicates that a girl who is absent from school for four days in 28 days (month) loses 13 learning days, equivalent to two weeks of learning in every school term. In an academic year (nine months) a girl loses 39 learning days equivalent to six weeks of learning time. A girl in primary school between Std. 6 and 8 (three years) loses 18 learning weeks out of 108 weeks. Within the four years of high school, a girl can lose 156 learning days equivalent to almost 24 weeks out of 144 weeks of learning. This is serious because in the long run, it translates to women being way behind than their male counterparts in terms of education.

Lack of access to menstrual products is a big deal. It is a hindrance to the achievement of very many Sustainable Development Goals (S.D.G’s) including Good Health and Well Being ( 3), Gender Equality (5), and Quality Education (5).

This problem is not just in Kenya but in the whole world. That being said, every year on the 28th of May, NGOs, government agencies, the private sector, the media, and individuals come together to celebrate Menstrual Hygiene Day and advocate for the importance of good menstrual hygiene management.

This year, we recognize that periods do not stop for pandemics and will continue to drive home the idea that it’s “Time for Action.” Beyond periods not just ‘stopping for pandemics,’ I think it’s eye-opening that institutions and individuals realise that periods will always be there no matter what, and it’s about time we start dealing with the issues surrounding them. The theme highlights the urgency for the collective work needed to both change the negative social norms surrounding menstruation and also catalyse progress toward empowering women and girls to unlock their educational and economic opportunities.

One of the major issues plaguing menstruation is period stigma. This is perpetuated by cultural taboos, discrimination, lack of education, silence and period poverty (the inability to access/afford feminine hygiene products). It’s sickening that in this day and age, some cultures perceive women who are on their periods as dirty and hence look down upon them.

When I think of period stigma, the first thing that comes to mind is the way in which we used to hide sanitary towels back in high school. It was almost taboo for people to see you with a sanitary towel. If for one reason or another you didn’t have them and had to borrow from someone, that exchange would almost be similar to the exchange of illegal drugs. Now looking back, it makes no sense why we acted that way. It’s a result of our upbringing, deep-rooted beliefs, and practices, where periods have such a negative connotation even when this shouldn’t be the case.

But that’s not the only instance that I’ve experienced period stigma. A few weeks back my mum was in my room while I was decluttering my wardrobe, and I had laid out sanitary towels on the bed among other things. When she saw them, she became angry and started asking why I was displaying my sanitary towels publicly and yet I have brothers. I countered her argument saying that my brothers know that periods exist, and there wouldn’t be anything wrong if they saw sanitary towels. This issue is very deep-rooted. The fact that we want to completely keep men out of the picture is a hindrance to our own progress. Men need to be involved in the conversation. Teaching boys about menstruation and other facts related to female sexual health promotes communication, lessens stigma, and creates more empathy. How else can we deal with an issue if we aren’t willing to discuss it?

Period poverty is another major issue facing millions of women in the world today. Period poverty is being unable to work or attend school because of lack of funds for sanitary products. Research by Menstrual Hygiene Day, a global advocacy platform for non-profit organisations and government agencies to promote menstrual health, shows that 65% of women and girls in Kenya are unable to afford sanitary pads. The thing is period poverty also affects women mentally. It lowers their levels of self-esteem and self-confidence, let alone hindering them from performing well academically.

However, despite all this negativity, we must recognise how far we have come in terms of dealing with the problem. Institutions, both governmental and non-governmental, have been fighting from time immemorial, to ensure that every woman has access to menstrual products such as pads, tampons and menstrual cups. Ten years ago, Kenya became the first country in the world to drop taxes on imports of sanitary products for women and girls. Two years ago President Uhuru Kenyatta, assented to the Basic Education Amendment Act that would have seen girls who have reached puberty across the country provided with free, quality sanitary towels in sufficient quantities, all funded by the state. But so far little has happened on the ground.

The reason as to why activists continue to fight for an end to period poverty is that the provision of adequate and safe sanitation promotes equity and opportunity, which, in turn contributes to the erosion of long-standing discrimination and societal norms that reinforce traditional roles, prejudices, and expectations.

Procter & Gamble (P &G) is a company that has worked tirelessly to make sure that girls have access to sanitary towels and information about menstrual issues. Since it started in 2006, the “Always Keeping Girls in School Program” has helped 170,000 girls and donated 11 million pads to keep them in school. The program started with one school per province. After experiencing some operational difficulties in several of the schools, the implementers sought to formalize the program by

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creating a partnership with the National Department of Education. The Department of Education made a three-year commitment to the program, aimed at reaching 10,000 girls per year in 75 schools nationwide, provided the program worked in partnership with UNICEF’s Girls and Boys Education Movement. P & G – Always Keeping Girls In School Celebrates 10 Years Of Success And Commits To Support More Girls.

As per a study done by P & G, 56% of girls they surveyed had a drop in confidence at puberty. One of the main reasons for the drop was the lack of information about what was happening to them. So clearly this issue is real. One of the major things that every woman needs to learn is her period cycle, which consists of pre-ovulation, ovulation, pre-menstruation and menstruation. Learning this cycle helps to understand the body anatomy more clearly and thereby enabling the person to be more comfortable in her body despite the changes that come as a result of this body anatomy. Mastering your periods has to do with understanding the physical changes and mental changes that come with menstruation, and how these changes affect our relationships. It’s knowing how to prepare for periods in terms of nutrition and emotional awareness.

As we celebrate Menstrual Hygiene Day this year, here are some of the success stories of the Always Keeping Girls In School Program.

Rita Kaari Matete has been a teacher at Kisiwa Primary school for 16 years. She enrolled her students in the program when she realized that access to sanitary towels was a big issue for the girls. Also, the girls had low self-esteem and were not confident enough to voice their struggles so sometimes the teachers would discover that they were using old pieces of mattress or clothes during their periods. The Always Keeping Girls In School Program has educated the girls about reproductive health, sexuality, and self-confidence. They offered them sanitary towels all year round. Through this education and awareness, the teachers started witnessing a gradual change in the behaviours of the girls. They were more confident, and they no longer missed classes. Read more of the story here – How P&G Has Helped Empower Girls In Thika Through The Always Keeping Girls In School Program

Gladys Makena Kaaria is a nurse who worked for a company called Bethel that helps reach vulnerable girls and empowers them with education about reproductive health. Together with P&G, they run the “Always Keeping girls in school” programme. She explains how the nurses go through training that enables them to talk to the girls on matters sex and the female reproductive system as a whole. Gladys says that the challenges that the girls face are heavily dependent on whether they live in an urban or rural setting. Girls in urban settings are more vocal while those in rural areas lack empowerment and education. Read more about what Bethel and Gladys are doing to help girls learn more about menstrual hygiene issues – The Always Keeping Girls In School Programme: The Bethel Network Empowers Girls By Educating Them On Reproductive Health Issues Using Nurses  

When we speak about menstruation, we often ignore vulnerable groups such as the special needs children. Fozia Muhamud, a special needs teacher at Seneiya Special School, has brought P & G on board to assist disabled girls with sanitary towels and education. Prior to this, she worked at Maralal Primary School, an integrated school (both special needs children and regular children) where she developed the “Girls for Girls” club. There was a need for this club because girls faced issues like FGM, early marriages and lack of access to menstrual hygiene products. She signed up for the Bethel network to help girls get access to pads and also reproductive health education. Read more about Fozia Muhamud and the work she does here – In Samburu The Always Keeping Girls School Program Is Providing Menstrual Education And Pads To Both Integrated And Special Needs Schools

Rupi Kaur illustrates the magnitude of the problem in very few but thought-provoking words: “Apparently it is ungraceful of me to mention my period in public because the actual biology of my body is too real. It is okay to sell what’s between a woman’s legs more than it is okay to mention its inner workings. The recreational use of this body is seen as beautiful while its nature is seen as ugly.”

The saddest narrative is that which is commonly heard by many women facing problems to do with menstruation. “I wish I was a boy.” It’s sad because as we continue to fight for equity and women empowerment, we tend to overlook the fact that issues to do with menstruation are making women lag behind every single day, and stopping us from reaching the highest form of ourselves.

As we celebrate menstrual hygiene day let us remember the wise words of Diane Mariechild: A woman is the full circle. Within her is the power to create, and nurture and transform.

Speaking about periods and access to sanitary towels check out

Linda Njeru’s Experience Looking for Pads In An Airport Lead To An Innovative Idea – The Yz-Me Sanitary Towel Vending Machine

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