Every month, girls at Ruiru Primary School in Kiambu County, walk into the deputy headteacher’s office looking for sanitary towels. Sometimes there are pads available for emergency cases, but sometimes there are none.
Stephen Ndirangu, the deputy headteacher, knows that there should be pads available to protect the girls from being teased by boys for soiling their dresses, and the stigma such incidents cause. This is why he was happy when President Uhuru Kenyatta assented to the Basic Education Amendment Act in 2017, which charged the government with providing free, sufficient and quality sanitary towels to every girl in a public basic education institution, who has reached puberty.
His excitement was shared by Beatrice Akoth, a Standard Eight pupil in Kisumu County, who started menstruating in Standard Six. When she first got her periods, her parents could not afford to buy her pads, so she had to make do with a folded t-shirt or toilet paper. Now, thanks to the law, girls like Beatrice, who can’t afford pads, shouldn’t have to worry about having safe methods to manage their periods every month, but unfortunately, they still do.
At Ruiru Primary School, girls last got government-issue pads mid-October last year. At Bobaracho Secondary School in Kisii County, 200 girls got the free pads last July, while at Kamuiru Primary School in Nyeri County, the pads were last issued last April. Jackline Gaturuki, a teacher at Kamuiru Primary School, told HealthyNation that once the free pads ran out, girls began to skip school again when they were on their periods – the very thing the free sanitary towels were supposed to bring an end to. The National Free Sanitary Towels Programme for disadvantaged girls in public primary and secondary schools, was first launched in 2011 to address cases of absenteeism by girls during their menses because they couldn’t afford pads.
One study estimated that 65 per cent of Kenyan women and girls could not afford sanitary towels every month and 54 per cent of women and girls said they were unable to meet their menstrual health management needs. At the time, the Ministry of Education estimated that a girl absent from school an average of four days a month would lose two weeks of learning every term, six weeks of learning every year and 18 weeks of learning between Standard Six and Standard Eight. Additionally, in the four years of secondary school, girls were losing up to 156 learning days (or 24 out of 144 weeks of learning) by staying away from school during their periods. Giving girls pads to manage menstruation, the Ministry noted, would help them take advantage of free basic education by dealing with a problem that was putting them at a disadvantage.
After the Basic Education Amendment Act came into force, the responsibility of providing pads to all girls was transferred to the State Department of Gender under the Ministry of Public Service, Youth and Gender Affairs. The drive to provide all menstruating girls in public schools with pads was launched in Nairobi by the Cabinet Secretary for Public Service and Youth, and Gender Affairs Margaret Kobia in May 2018, with a Sh470 million budget for 14.8 million pads for 3.7 million girls.
And while girls and their teachers say there couldn’t have been a better move, the free pads haven’t been available for every period as expected, which raises questions on the effectiveness of the programme that was initiated to ensure that girls do not miss learning.
For Beatrice, intermittent access to the government-supplied pads means that she is not at ease and she can’t concentrate in class, worried that she might have stained her school uniform since she has been forced to go back to using folded t-shirts and toilet paper to manage her period after the government-supplied pads ran out.
At Ruiru Primary School, Rose Kimani, the teacher in-charge of menstrual hygiene, said that the four packets that girls got last October, barely supported them through to the next issue which was expected to happen in January, but did not.
“We are still waiting for them (pads) because they help in preventing a number of absenteeism cases that are common with girls who are menstruating,” she said.
OUT OF STOCK
The same scenario plays out at Bobaracho Secondary School, where Joyce Nyakundi, the principal, attested to the value of free pads in ensuring that girls don’t miss school, and urged the government to supply the pads every term if possible.
“When the pads were issued, the girls were excited and promised to work hard in class. The only problem is that we ran out of stock. I request the government to continue with the initiative and supply us with pads every term if possible to support girls’ education,” she said.
In April, Kiambu Woman Representative told HealthyNation that the pads she distributed were supposed to have been issued last October.
“I'm supposed to be distributing sanitary towels for this term but they have not been delivered. We understand the delays are caused by the procurement process,” she said.
In the absence of the government pads, girls have had to rely on well-wishers, and teachers have had to dig into their pockets to plug the gap.
“Since the last distribution, we have been relying on well-wishers like Always to donate pads. We give the girls one packet and keep the rest for emergencies, but we all know that one packet is not enough to take a girl through her period,” said Mr Ndirangu, the deputy headteacher at Ruiru Primary School, adding that the school has a high number of girls in puberty, some of whom begin their menses in Standard Four (at around age nine or 10).
PLUGGING THE GAP
Joyce Andede, the teacher in-charge of guidance and counselling at Bobaracho Secondary School, added that teachers at the school are forced to buy pads for students.
“We are forced to buy pads for the girls from our salaries. The government should continue to help these young girls who want to learn but can’t afford pads,” she said.
Previous studies had estimated that two in three women and girls in rural areas receive pads from sexual partners, something that Kisii County Woman Representative Janet Ong'era told HealthyNation had been ended by the provision of free sanitary towels.
“Tales of girls getting into transgenerational relationships for sanitary towels are now a thing of the past,” she said.
Responding to concerns that girls do not have pads when they need them, despite a law and a budget for it, Cabinet Secretary for Youth and Gender Margaret Kobia acknowledged that there had been challenges with supply, but said that these challenges had been resolved.
“Distribution of sanitary towels was done in all counties by June 2018. However, there were challenges experienced by a few suppliers who were unable to deliver during that period, and the contract was re-awarded to new suppliers who supplied to all the counties by March this year,” said Prof Kobia.
During the first distribution, each girl got four packets of pads with eight sanitary towels each (which would cater for three months), something that the Ministry said was because the distribution was done towards the end of the financial year.
“Each girl is expected to receive nine packets of sanitary towels with eight pads each, which are expected to last the girls a year,” said Prof Kobia in her statement.
But some girls say this is not enough.
“I have a heavy flow, which means one packet of pads is not enough for one monthly cycle,” Beatrice, the Standard Eight pupil from Kisumu, who relies on free government pads told HealthyNation. And at Kamuiru Primary School in Nyeri, girls said that they had to share their pads with sisters or cousins who had not gotten pads from their own schools.
The issue of adequate supply was also raised by Kiambu Woman Representative Gathoni Wamuchomba.
“In every sub-county we have seen about 400 to 500 girls miss out on the pads which then forces us to distribute three packets instead of four per girl per term. In areas where the girls are more than the supply, we give them two per student to make sure that none misses a packet,” said Ms Wamuchomba. She also said that this has seen her allocate funds meant for other projects from her foundation to fill the gap.
“I have been forced to use other resources to fill the gap which is a duplication of resources. I should not be setting aside resources for a project that is being funded by the government, but I do it because I’m a woman and I understand what it means to miss a pad when menstruating,” said Ms Wamuchomba.
Kisumu Woman Representative Rozah Buyu said that procurement hitches had caused delays, and urged the national government to start procurement early.
“If procurement is not done in time, that means that the following month there is a lapse, and for some girls, this is the supply they depend on,” said Ms Buya. She added that the logistics of supplying pads posed another challenge, as all girls have to be assembled in one place for the distribution, and many schools neither have a means of transport nor a budget for the travel.
“It has become expensive to bring all schoolgirls in a particular ward in one place to do the distribution. It has proved to be a challenge because many of these schools do not have a means of transport,” said Ms Buyu, as she called for the Ministry to allocate money to cater for distribution logistics.
Moreover, while issuing pads to students in Limuru in April last year, Kiambu Woman Representative Gathoni Wamuchomba also said that they were not the right size.
“The first lot I received for Ruiru and Juja sub-counties were the correct size, but the ones I gave out in Limuru were mothers’ sanitary towels. They were big and packed in sacks,” said Ms Wamuchomba, adding that there was also a huge challenge with disposal of used sanitary towels in schools, especially because the pads are not biodegradable. The Basic Education Act stipulated that girls should be provided with a safe and environmentally-sound mechanism for the disposal of sanitary towels.
In Nyeri, Woman Representative Rahab Mukami said that there were delays in getting government pads, and when they finally came, her office rejected them on grounds that they were substandard.
“When we finally received the consignment, we were not comfortable with receiving substandard pads. That meant that the ministry had to re-advertise the tender,” said Ms Mukami, adding that the pads were finally to be distributed soon after schools opened for the second term.
However, Prof Kobia refuted claims of substandard pads, saying that the pads which are sourced locally, with some imported from India and China, had met the required standards.
“The tender documents have clear specification on the standards of sanitary towels to be manufactured. The specifications were issued by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) and it is mandatory that they are subjected to KEBS laboratory tests during manufacturing to ensure they meet the required standards. There is an inspection team that has been appointed by the Ministry to ensure that the standards are adhered to and they subject the sanitary towels to KEBS tests before they are released for supply and distribution. Those imported into the country are subjected to mandatory KEBS tests before being released from the port and into the country for distribution,” said Prof Kobia in a statement.
According to Prof Kobia, the government proposes to use Sh800 million in the financial year beginning next month after the budget to distribute free sanitary towels to a projected 4.7 million girls.
Report by Mary Wambui, Grace Gitau, Peris Barongo, Elizabeth Ojina, Angela Oketch