Menstrual health and hygiene are very important aspects of a woman’s life. Menstrual cycles are supposed to feel natural and ordinary but to some women, “that time of the month” represents nothing but stress. Disabled women often disappear in the crowd when matters of sexuality are in discussion. Exclusion is something unfortunately common in the disabled community.
A good number of people associate disabled women with a couple of myths are completely untrue; that they are asexual and have no desire or interest to engage in sexual activity. They are too weak or too fragile to carry children of their own. They are incapable of having successful relationships and finding partners with whom they can start families.
Misinformation and lack of facts are the biggest contributors to this line of thinking. Disabled women are stigmatized when seeking reproductive health services. Healthcare providers are not well versed in sign language and communicating with women who have special needs. Physical access is hardly put into consideration, women on wheelchairs are expected to travel just as far as able-bodied women to access sanitary towels. Nurses patronise them and make decisions for them without consent. All this while languishing in poverty, a significant number of disabled people live under the poverty line because no one is willing to employ them. The biggest hurdles that disabled women have to overcome are society’s bad mindset and its flawed perception about how a disabled woman should look like.
Peninah’s firstborn daughter was smaller than other babies, as her peers were learning to walk, she could barely sit straight without support. Peninah’s motherly instincts suspected that something was wrong, but she also convinced herself that maybe her daughter was just slower at reaching her milestones. A doctor would later diagnose young Njeri with cerebral palsy; a congenital disorder that affects movement, muscle tone and posture.
Now 24yrs, Njeri has grown up to be a bubbly, fashionable and charismatic young woman. Her life, however, has been marred by the many challenges that often face disabled people in Kenya. With Menstrual hygiene awareness day coming up, Njeri and her mother intimate how cerebral palsy continues to affect her journey to womanhood.
“One of Njeri’s aunty told me that she prayed every day for Njeri not to get her periods because it would be adding more stress to an already difficult situation.” – Peninah
Peninah says that cerebral palsy doesn’t affect Njeri’s monthly cycles. She has a body that functions just like any other woman. The challenges they face come from society and the inaccurate stereotypes that are associated with disabled girls. She says that even though Njeri struggles to communicate because of the speech impairment resulting from cerebral palsy, she readied and educated her about the menstrual cycle. Reassuring her beautiful daughter that it was something natural that every woman goes through.
“I have always been overprotective with my daughter; I am well aware of how people take advantage of disabled women”- Peninah
With her husband out of the picture after refusing to accept Njeri, Peninah struggled to hold on to a job because the caregivers she would employ for her daughter would quit after realizing that helping Njeri through her period was in the job description. Njeri would often have to wait for her mum to get off work so she could help change the pad and bathe her.
Njeri would experience severe abdominal pain during her periods. The doctor advised that the pain was normal and in no way related to cerebral palsy. It still made her uncomfortable, emotional and irritable.
“My daughter was sad and self-conscious about herself because the caregivers let her sit in a full pad the entire day. I resolved to leave work and take care of her myself.” – Peninah
Peninah would have to lock Njeri inside the house when she needed to go to the shop. She felt like she couldn’t trust anyone around her daughter especially now that she was becoming a woman. Living in an urban area with a lot of new faces around, Peninah felt she couldn’t expose her daughter to just anyone. “Disabled girls are susceptible to being taken advantage of because they can’t express themselves properly.”
To make her daughter feel more comfortable and secure about her womanhood, Peninah has forged a strong friendship built on openness. They talk about anything and everything. She says that though Njeri has cerebral palsy, she is more than capable of thinking for herself and discerning life on her own. So she lets have control over the brand of pads she likes and lets her decide where she wants to store them.
“Treating disabled women like they are not capable of thinking for themselves when it comes to their periods is very wrong. We can assist where we can but let them have control over their own bodies.” – Peninah