In Nairobi, Kenya, Mary Asigi is a 17-year-old student at Damascus primary school. Every month, she misses a few days of school because she doesn’t have access to period products. Mary is one of many girls in Kenya who faces this issue. Girls in Kenya will miss about four days of school each month, or an average of 20% of the school year, because they are on their period. Across the globe, period shame and period poverty contributes to health complications, humiliation, poor access to employment, and other challenges for women. Ending the global stigma which surrounds female menstruation and making sanitary products widely available is necessary to increase women’s health, education, employment, and livelihood.
The Impact of Period Poverty and Period Stigma on Girls in Kenya
Period poverty refers to the common challenge plaguing women globally wherein they are unable to attend schools or work as a cause of a lack of funds for sanitary products. In the case of Kenya, a packet of sanitary pads costs $1. Around 36% of Kenyans, however, live on less than the international poverty line of $1.90 per day. High poverty rates in Kenya mean that the majority of girls face extreme barriers in accessing to feminine hygiene products. In fact, 65% of women and girls in Kenya are unable to afford period products.
Period poverty goes further than having to stay home because you cannot afford sanitary products. It is both a health risk and a signal of gender inequity. In rural Kenya, 2 out of 3 pad users receive pads from sexual partners. Period poverty is so prevalent in Kenya that 10% of 15-year-old girls were having sex to pay for period products. Period poverty contributes to global and regional gender inequity, as women are forced to solicit help from men in order to satisfy a basic health need.
Poverty is not the only thing affecting the lack of access to period products in both in Kenya and globally. There is a huge stigma and lack of understanding around menstruation. This stigma exists even in cases or communities where poverty is not an issue. In cases where poverty does place challenges on menstruation, period shaming only further exacerbates the issue. In September of 2019, a Kenyan school girl took her own life after experiencing excessive ‘period shaming’. The 14-year-old had experienced excessive humiliation from a teacher, being called “dirty” for staining her uniform.
The Kenyan school girl case is an extreme one, but it speaks to the level of period shaming that women experience every month. Luckily, there are efforts being made to end both period poverty, and the stigma which surrounds female menstruation.
With the support of UNICEF, the Kenyan government is developing national guidelines for menstrual hygiene in schools. This includes having proper hand-washing facilities and places to dispose of sanitary products. In 2017, Kenya passed a law to give schoolgirls free sanitary pads sponsored by the government. The law was an amendment to The Education Act and states that “free, sufficient and quality sanitary towels” will be provided to all girls registered at school. The law is a step in the right direction for Kenya, and while it did take time before pads were widely accessible in schools, it is still a win in the fight against period injustice.
The Kenyan government is not the only stakeholder hoping to improve period health in the nation. Researchers in partnership with ZanaAfrica and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will be distributing a variety of sanitary products to girls across Nairobi to help combat period poverty. Their mission doesn’t end there, as the collective intends to also improve period education and stigmatization through piloting Nia teen magazine. The magazine hopes to educate and improve the health of girls living in economic and informational poverty through offering a physical resource that can be shared, read in private, and referred to time and time again.
COVID-19: One step forward, two steps back
Efforts in part of the Kenyan government as well as through charitable organizations and groups offered a step in the right direction to increase period health and decrease period stigma. But much of these efforts were interrupted when COVID-19 forced global shutdowns; promptly cutting girls off from menstruation resources. Thousands of girls in Kenya will no longer be returning to school when classes start up again because they became pregnant during lockdown. Between January and May 2020, more than 150 000 girls became pregnant in Kenya. After schools closed in March, access to basic hygiene requirements such as clean water, soap, and sanitary pads diminished even further than prior levels.
Experts are calling it a ‘shadow pandemic’ where Kenyan girls have been exchanging sex or child pornography for money to buy period products. School closures have caused young women in Kenya to become preyed on by older men with spare cash. Lockdowns that followed the pandemic did more than disrupt the success of small businesses and our day-to-day lives. In Kenya, it added an additional barrier in the fight for women’s education.
Clearly, there needs to be a greater global effort to end period poverty and period stigma. The first step is educating women and girls about what female menstruation is and how to remain healthy over the duration of your period. The second step is educating boys and men. Ending period shame cannot come from only educating those who experience it. Men must be informed about what periods mean, and how to support women during theirs.
Of course, it is also necessary to make menstruation products free and widely accessible. While efforts made by the Kenyan government and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation are a step in the right direction, there has to be a greater global effort towards free and accessible menstruation products. This effort should be adaptable: should other global issues impact distribution or access, new mechanisms of distribution should be able to replace the old. Ultimately, we must ensure that women do not have to put themselves in dangerous or harmful situations in pursuit of a basic health needs.
Every day, there are over 800 million women and girls across the world on their period. Half the population has, or will someday, experience menstruation. Period stigma and period poverty is both an end and a means to gender inequality, and in order to end its impact, there has to be a conscious global effort to support women and girls.
Edited by Arielle De Leon
Claudia Velimirovic is in her second year at McGill University pursuing a major in honours International Development and a minor in Social Entrepreneurship. This is her first year writing for Catalyst and she is particularly interested in gender inequality and women’s health.