By Mary Ndung’u,
The conversation on menstrual health is still considered a taboo in the conservative Africa space. For a long time, the discourse around the same has been done in undertones, unfortunately to the detriment of many girls and women. As the world celebrates the Menstrual Health Hygiene day, the situation in most parts of Africa and closer home in Kenya still tell a sad narrative of women and girls living in seclusion and missing school because of menstruation.
Access to resources and lack of priority to effectively manage menstrual health in safe hygienic ways have further conspired to create significant barriers to high-quality menstrual hygiene management. The ripple effect of this has been greatly felt by women and girls in low-income areas.
Despite a lot of interventions and policies being made to try and mitigate the situation, the biggest challenge still remains normalizing the narrative on menstruation. The Menstrual Hygiene Management day, therefore, provides a platform to highlight the importance of good menstrual hygiene management and initiate bold conversations about menstrual health so as to avert stigma and discrimination that are associated with menstruation.
Different discussions around menstrual health management (MHM) have made global headlines. There has been growing concern from governments, NGOs and other institutions to address and demystify menstrual related myths, taboos and shame that have affected many girls and women in low- and middle-income countries.
A study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation estimated that 65% of women and girls in Kenya are unable to afford sanitary pads. Gladly the government is combating this and is now working towards ensuring that this scourge is arrested. There is now growing national attention to MHM with the National Sanitary Towels Program for school girls and the development of national MHM guidelines to streamline operations so as to mitigate and change the narrative.
To further the government’s agenda on this, in 2017, the Basic Education Act was amended thus placing the responsibility of providing free, sufficient and quality sanitary towels to every girl child registered and enrolled in a public education institution and has reached puberty on the government. This was aimed at reducing absenteeism for girls in schools during their periods.
In 2016 a report by UNESCO estimated that one in 10 girls in rural areas of Sub-Saharan Africa is absent from school during their menstrual cycle.
The private sector is effectively initiating programs to help bridge this gap and to normalize the conversation around this topic. A good example is the Always Keeping Girls in School (AKGIS) program.
Always Keeping Girls in School (AKGIS) has been able to empower girls through essential puberty education, motivation, access to educational resources and donations of a year supply of Always sanitary pads. This ensures that girls don’t have to miss school and they can be confident about themselves and their futures. Started in 2006, the program has so far distributed over 9.5 million pads to over 120,000 girls in the country. In 2018, over 11,500 girls were impacted by the program countrywide. This saw a 95% drop in under age pregnancies and 50% improved academic performance amongst the beneficiaries.
The programme has now integrated boys in the education sessions. This allows them to become part of the change in normalizing the conversation. The expected outcome is for men to begin talking about menstruation more freely and be supportive of the MHM needs of women and girls within households, communities, and schools.
The Kaka Empire Foundation has also taken up the challenge of providing primary school girls in marginalized areas with sanitary products and educating them on menstrual hygiene through the #BankOnMe initiative. These amongst other programs run by different organizations and individuals have helped reduce the cases of early marriages in some communities, sex in exchange for sanitary pads, poor academic performance of girls and school dropouts hence protecting girls from different societal pressures.
Both the government and private sector interventions are critical in positively impacting menstrual health management. They further provide a perfect ground for more public-private partnerships that will aid assuage the situation. This, therefore, calls on every stakeholder to come on board and work towards ensuring that we engage in thought-provoking dialogues so that we can reduce the stigma and suffering that come with menstruation.
The Menstrual Health Hygiene day should, therefore, make us reflect and learn from the pains we have endured and moved towards consolidating gains that are impactful so as to ease the lives of our girls and women. It is every individual’s role to help fight stigma and poverty associated with MHM. One can support organizations already doing this work or take up the challenge to help disadvantaged girls by supporting them directly.
The writer is the Founder of Bethel Network an organization that uses bi-polar approach of Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) education and Youth and Women Economic Empowerment (YWEE) to bring transformational holistic transition of communities through integrated holistic youth and women empowerment.