This anonymous essay was submitted to Open Philanthropy's Cause Exploration Prizes contest and published with the author's permission.
Significant barriers to high-quality menstrual hygiene management (MHM) persist across Kenya and remain a particular challenge for low-income women and girls. Formative research shows that girls face monthly challenges, with 65% of women and girls in Kenya unable to afford sanitary pads. Only 50% of girls say that they openly discuss menstruation at home. Just 32% of rural schools have a private place for girls to change their menstrual product. And only 12% of girls in Kenya would be comfortable receiving the information from their mother. There are also more jarring statistics signaling that menstruation is tied to more fundamental risks and issues of gender inequity, with studies showing 2 out of 3 of pad users in rural Kenya receiving them from sexual partners and 1 in 4 girls do not associate menstruation with pregnancy.
Overview of Current Challenges in Kenya:
Education and Awareness: Girls receive inadequate education on menarche, puberty, and MHM, and lack the necessary information channels for ongoing support, mentorship, and knowledge.
Products: High costs and distribution challenges limit the accessibility of disposable pads to the majority of low-income girls and women, especially in rural areas. There is an increase in low-cost sanitary pad enterprises but their reach is still limited.
Sanitation: Awareness of WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) needs for proper MHM exists, but MHM is still under-prioritized given significant gaps in access to sanitation facilities in urban, low-income settings.
Policy: There is growing national attention to MHM with the National Sanitary Towels Program for school girls and development of national MHM guidelines.
Stories from the Field—A Glimpse into Girls’ Experience
Triza, 14 years old, lives in Kawangware, a slum located in the western part of Nairobi County, Kenya. She attends school in Kawangware, where she also lives with three siblings and parents in a one-bedroom house. She shares a bed with her sister, and the family shares an outdoor toilet facility. She generally feels safe using the toilet, except at night when she sometimes feels scared to. The school environment and structures are not very conducive to learning, sometimes the classrooms are very cold, and the teachers are not well trained. There is no access to running water, and students like Triza are required to either fetch water from the nearby river, or carry a 5-liter container of water to flush the toilet after use. Triza does not enjoy the company of the boys at her school; sometimes they play bad jokes, like pressing the girls against the door, or trying to hold their hands. At school, girls are provided with pads if their period starts in school, and they also receive permission to go home and take a bath if they have stained their dress. However, she is not scared of her period, and she continues to go about her daily activities as normal.
Mary is 18 years old and lives in Kangundo in Machakos County, Kenya. She lives with her extended family, specifically her grandmother, uncle, brother, and niece. Her mother lives in Kajiado County where she works. Mary dropped out of school because her family could not raise enough school fees for her to continue her education. During the day, she does not work for pay and spends most of her day tending to the livestock, specifically grazing the goats. She also buys groceries for the family such as milk and vegetables, and is responsible for preparing all the meals, washing the dishes, doing laundry, and fetching firewood. They have an outdoor bathroom and toilet. Since they do not have running water, they use basin water and soap to take a bath. During her periods, she experiences a lot of pain in her lower back and abdomen, and she is not able to work. The boys in her area do not know much about menstruation, and although Mary has a boyfriend, he lives in Nairobi and they do not discuss menstruation.
Christine is a 12-year-old girl from Machakos County, Kenya. She lives with her six siblings and parents. She fetches water and washes dishes every evening after school, and thereafter spends time doing her homework. She likes her school because the buildings are clean and well-constructed, and the students always perform well in their exams. She remembers getting her first period when she was at home, when she was 11 years old. She did not know anything about menstruation before then, and she was shocked. However, she told her mother, and her mother assured her that it was normal and provided her with sanitary pads. Once she started her period, she felt that she had now matured into an adult. In school, they are taught menstruation and her female teachers provide her and other female students a lot of support. However, some of her classmates laugh when they find out that one of the girls is menstruating. Christine’s dream is to complete her education so that she can have a prosperous life.
This is truly heart-breaking and therefore my partner (Margaret Wangeci Muita) under an organization that we intend to register as Gleam Girls Kenya, are out to offer a helping hand in slaying this monster that is messing the Kenyan girl child.
We intend to apply the following solutions:
Education and Awareness: Kenya’s existing sexuality curriculum offers the biological context around menstruation, but additional instruction to both boys and girls on the gendered
sociocultural aspects of menarche and interpersonal relationships at puberty would serve to support girls to manage menstruation in a more dignified manner. There is a need to build the capacity of teachers, school administrators, and parents to deliver this information and serve as ongoing mentors as a source of emotional support for girls as they transition through puberty.
Products: Improve access to low-cost MHM products for underprivileged and/or low-income consumers. There is a gap between product demand and supply for low-income consumers.
Sanitation: Menstrual waste is placing an increasing amount of pressure on existing sanitation infrastructure, and there are few sustainable, appropriate solutions for the individual or the system. Innovative technology or models are needed to ensure girls can dispose of menstrual waste privately and safely and that system can process waste efficiently while limiting health and environmental risks.
Thank you for taking the time to read this and considering our request. Without your support, this will only remain a dream for us and a nightmare for about 65% of women and girls in Kenya. Coin by coin, brick by brick and we shall together be able to address this elephant in the room.
Gleam Girls Kenya.