by Esther Aoko
I got my first period when I was thirteen years old. I remember the previous week my desk mate saying, “Please sit down, I need to tell you something, you have messed up your dress.” At that point my heart was beating so fast as I thought that the day I was eagerly waiting for had come. But unfortunately, she was lying, I had not started menstruating and she just wanted to scare me. I was partially disappointed because most of the girls in my class had already gotten their periods and I was getting worried about mine being a little bit late. The following week, as I was going for a library lesson, I felt a sharp pain in my head which quickly went away. I ignored it and continued studying. On my way out the library, one of my classmates rushed towards me and covered me with his sweater, he told that we needed to visit the school nurse since there was blood on my dress. When we arrived at the school nurse’s office, she smiled and gave me a clean dress to change and some pads. At this point, I still wasn’t quite sure about what was happening but as soon as it dawned on me, I got so excited. When I got home that day, I was so scared to tell my mum about it, so I just asked her for some money to buy pads and she figured it out.
My experience was a pleasant one, but this is not the case for many young girls in Kenya, as properly managing a menstrual cycle with adequate sanitary products remains to be a luxury. Roughly one million girls miss out on education each month because they are unable to afford menstrual products. Girls and women are unable to work or participate in education for days at a time, placing them at a disadvantage in comparison to their male peers. Some girls even resort to sharing menstrual products in a desperate attempt to find a solution to period poverty in Kenya.
Research shows that 65% of Kenyan women and girls are unable to afford basic sanitary pads. As a consequence, girls often rely on the men in their lives for period products and some girls engage in transactional sex in order to secure sanitary products, perpetuating a patriarchal cycle of reliance and exploitation.
Menstrual Hygiene Day takes place on 28 May every year. It’s a chance to highlight the importance of menstrual care, and raise awareness about the issues faced by those who don’t have access to sanitary products. Access to sanitary products, safe, hygienic spaces in which to use them, and the right to manage menstruation without shame or stigma, is essential for anyone who menstruates. This day gives us the opportunity to reflect on the gaps that exist and turn these reflections into actionable commitments and efforts to end period poverty.
The theme of this year’s Menstrual Hygiene Day is making menstruation a normal fact of life by 2030. Eradicating shame and stigma that is associated with menstruation is a key milestone towards eradicating period poverty. As this year’s theme suggests, it is important for us to normalise menstruation, be loud about how access to sanitary products should not be luxury for women and girls and, most importantly, advocate for the allocation of more resources towards ending period poverty. When girls and women have adequate access to menstrual products, they are able to continue with their school and work endeavours. Overall, a world without period poverty means girls and women can contribute fully to all societal aspects, have the freedom and opportunity to dream and make their dreams a reality.
Written by Esther Aoko
Peer reviewed by: Rebecca Mbewe, Alice Welbourn, Emma Bell, Martha Tholanah
Follow Esther on Twitter @esther_aoko
As UNFPA points out: ‘Evidence is emerging globally of the importance of menstrual health for the broader health, well-being, mobility, dignity, and educational and economic empowerment of women, girls and all people who menstruate. This is supported by a growing body of literature demonstrating the importance of menstrual health as a determinant of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). The linkages between SRHR and menstrual health are twofold: the biological associations between menstrual health and fertility, contraceptive use, reproductive tract infections, maternal health, and HIV are increasingly evident, while sociocultural barriers, including stigma, lack of knowledge, restrictive social norms and practices, gender norms, and structural barriers, also create bi-directional linkages between menstrual health and SRHR. These biological and sociocultural barriers result in girls, women and people who menstruate being ill-prepared to make and have agency over decisions related to sex, relationships, family planning, and health, thereby perpetuating the cycle of poor SRHR and broader development outcomes.
The time is now to improve the integration of menstrual health in SRHR policies and programmes.’
You can read the full UNFPA report here:
United Nations Population Fund, East and Southern Africa (UNFPA ESARO) (2021) Technical brief on the integration of menstrual health into sexual and reproductive health and rights policies and programmes.