Menstrual hygiene management is a fundamental right for all women and girls. It is part of their daily life from as young as nine up to their 50s. It is a normal and natural biological process and important for female reproductive health. Managing menstruation, commonly called “periods”, hygienically with dignity provides them equal opportunities with boys and men in education, health and work.
However, the topic has been considered taboo in many societies. This has led to stigma and discrimination towards girls and women.
In Kenya, like in many other countries, girls with their first periods are not often informed correctly of their body changes. According to a study commissioned by the ministry of Health (2016), while parents, mainly mothers, remain the primary source of information, they are mostly concerned that their daughters avoid early pregnancy and avoid boys. This is because menstruation is often viewed as a sign of maturity, meaning girls have reached a potentially marriageable or child bearing age. Other common myths include: Having periods is dirty and impure; if you go to the garden during periods, your crops will die; and menstruating girls and women are not allowed to touch or milk cows for fear that the cows will get sick or die. These myths and untruths can also lead to poor hygiene during the periods, urinary tract and vaginal infections, missing school, and even poor psychological well-being for these girls.
Furthermore, the Ministry of Health study shows that more than half of Kenyan girls had challenges with access to menstrual hygiene products like sanitary pads. Other studies found that in Kibera, 65 percent of women have traded sex for sanitary pads (FAWE, 2011). In Western Kenya, 10 percent of young adolescent girls admitted to transactional sex for pads (Philips-Howard et al, 2015). Lack of adequate water, poor sanitation and hygiene facilities at schools, work and in public spaces is another burden for maintaining normalcy during periods.
Monday, May 28, is Menstrual Hygiene Day, dedicated to raising awareness on the challenges that women and girls face during menstruation.
The government of Kenya has been working on initiatives to break the silence on menstruation and provide more adequate services to girls and women. With support of a team of experts from Unicef, Non-Governmental Organisations and the private sector, the ministry of Health developed the National Menstrual Hygiene Management Policy and Strategy. To improve the level of awareness on menstrual hygiene, a teachers’ handbook in English and Kiswahili is being developed and the topic was incorporated into the new school curriculum. The national initiative of free sanitary towel distribution has reached more than 11 million primary school girls since 2011. Most recently, the First Lady Margaret Kenyatta launched the Menstrual Health Management Programme with support from the Red Cross Society. All 47 county governments and the County First Ladies Association have committed to allocate Sh500,000 to address menstrual hygiene.
The momentum is increasing in Kenya. Yet, we need to find more practical, holistic and cost-effective solutions by involving different ministries, multi-sectoral partners, private sectors and civil society from national, county to community level. There are three key areas of action: One, to provide accurate information and education about menstrual hygiene to eliminate stigma, cultural and social barriers; two, to ensure hygienic and affordable sanitary products availability and safe disposal of used materials; and, three, to equip home, schools and workplaces with clean and private toilets, water and soap.
We are calling upon all citizens to engage and actively participate in these initiatives through the slogan, “No More Limits: Empowering Women and Girls through good Menstrual Hygiene”.
Sicily K. Kariuki is the Health Cabinet Secretary
Dr Werner Schultink is the Representative, Unicef Kenya