Menstruation starts at different ages depending on one’s maturity. Some start their menarche early, for others it is delayed. In many African households, sex and sexuality are issues shrouded in silence and mystery, issues related to menstruation are more often deemed dirty and never spoken about. It is a challenge growing up as a female in an African household because periods are seen as shame, for others it is seen as being ripe for marriage and producing children, making it an excuse to marry off young girls sometimes to men 4 or 7 times their age.
When menstruation starts, many girls find it difficult to open up about what is happening to them, they may not have the knowledge of period calculator to know when the next menses and hence when the next period comes, it may happen in the school parade, when out playing sports or when going back home for lunch. The shame that comes with period makes many girls to drop out of school because they get taunted especially by males. In addition, poverty may make parents unable to buy sanitary pads for their daughters, in some cases even mothers themselves cannot afford sanitary pads in the first place and make do with pieces of cloth. There are also reported cases of girls using papers , furthermore many vulnerable girls depend on educational institutions to provide these important reproductive health materials but with the closure of schools, many school girls can no longer access sanitary pads. In different parts of Africa, women and girls face a variety of challenges during their menstruation. These range from costs, cramps, lack of privacy, water and sanitation.
In Kenya, the story of menses reflects the sad reality and an everyday challenge for many women and girls. Due to period shame and the resultant humiliation due to menstruation, a 14-year-old girl committed suicide because of being singled out by her male teacher due to soiling her uniform.When a girl menstruates in school, many a times she gets mocked by males, this makes her feel humiliated and loses confidence. In the long run this form of humiliation has a great impact on girl’s education and in some cases may make the girl drop out of school. Other factors that make the cost of pads unaffordable include costs. A packet of Always sanitary pads goes for Kshs 85; the purchase of pads also depends on how heavy one flows. Sometimes the menstrual flow can be heavy, this means more than 1 packet of sanitary pads at a given time. Woe unto you if there is no money at home to purchase pads for you. It means either this girl will stay at home during her menses or use pieces of clothes which sometimes may not be clean and has the danger of making the transferring infections to the reproductive organs. Access to clean water during menstruation is very important, however this become a challenge in places where there is no clean running water and there is also risk of infections especially in congested neighbourhoods where families have to share bathrooms and toilets. Additionally, the lack of access to clean, running water makes it a challenge for girls to bathe properly during menstruation.
Due to inability to afford pads, some young girls are forced into transactional sex in order to access pads. This further put them at an increased risk of Sexually Transmitted Infections and unplanned pregnancy.Some organisations providing re-usable pads, however, they are still not accessible to many girls and women who need them.
Despite the challenges faced by girls and women in accessing sanitary pads, all is not lost. In Nairobi, one young person namely Alfred Abuka – a student at Kenyatta University is taking it upon himself to make life a bit bearable for girls in informal settlements and other pockets of poverty in relation to menstruation. Armed with an idea known as the 10 Bob Challenge where an equivalent of Kshs 10 is mobilised among friends and family members to buy sanitary pads and then distribute these to vulnerable girls across different communities in Nairobi. Since the start of the challenge, 400 girls have been reached with information on sexual and reproductive health including confidence building that menstruation is not shameful. Given that the 10 Bob challenge is being spearheaded by a male youth makes it even more valuable and interesting. This is because many a times when females soil their clothes be it in the market, in a bus, in a classroom, it is males who humiliate her more. The 10 Bob Challenge is anchored on the fact that it is possible for males to make a difference even in the smallest way possible and transform people’s attitudes towards things seen shameful. It helps give a humane face to menstruation, to be able to consider it as an important and acceptable part of growing up that one should be excited about not ashamed of. The beauty of the 10 Bob Challenge is that other organisations are reaching out to support the initiative through buying sanitary pads or providing other forms of material support towards the initiative.
Yes, we can teach our brothers, uncles, nephews and sons that menstruation is not shameful and it is about time families more so in Africa stop treating menstruation as something shameful but as something to be proud of one’s gender , that is being a WOMAN.
This story was submitted in response to Supporting Our Girls.