When in primary school, Duke Okari saw a Class Seven girl crying as other pupils laughed and ridiculed her. At that time, he was a pupil in a village school in Nyamira County where “Ekegusii” (a local dialect) was the main language of communication.
Upon asking, he was told that the girl ‘saw the moon and started bleeding’. “That was the last day I saw the girl in school,” says Okari, who is now a teacher.
Okari could not understand how ‘seeing the moon’ could cause bleeding. It was until much later that he came to know that the girl was menstruating.
While statistics may not be accurate on how many girls in the country have abandoned their studies due to the humiliation and inability to handle menstruation, UNICEF says one in 10 girls in Sub-Saharan Africa misses school due to menstruation and poor sanitation.
Kenya’s education ministry estimates that girls who stay at home for lack of sanitary towels lose up to six weeks of learning time annually.
A decade ago, the government waived taxes on sanitary towels, making them more affordable. In 2011, it started to distribute them to selected girls from poor backgrounds.However, this trend is likely to change once the Basic Education Amendment Act which was signed into law recently by President Kenyatta is enforced, making distribution of the commodity more inclusive.
The act makes it a responsibility of the government to provide free, sufficient and quality sanitary towels to every adolescent girl registered and enrolled in any public basic education institution in the country.It further directs that schools must provide a safe and clean environmental and sound mechanism for disposing used sanitary napkins.
Already, Ksh 5 billion has been set aside in the 2017/18 financial year for free sanitary towels. But the amount is not sufficient. Over the years, corporates, NGOs and individuals have taken the lead to drive the agenda of supplying sanitary pads to needy girls.
For instance in Kisii, Heart4Change founder Lilian Kemunto says the Non-Governmental Organisation has reached about 10,000 girls in a hundred schools so far. The organisation is involved in empowerment of girls.
“The need is still huge and I doubt if the Act as it is currently can satisfy it,” Kemunto says. She argues that supplying free disposable sanitary towels is not sustainable due to their high cost. This, she stresses, is why some organisations including Heart4Change, are giving girls reusable sanitary towels, which can last up to three years if properly used.“We encourage schools to have changing rooms where girls can clean the towels and air them, even at home.
“Even though we have provided some hygienic rooms in girls’ toilets where they can wash their hands and clean themselves, this needs to be up-scaled through Affirmative Action Programs,” says Kemunto.
However, critics and some medics say some of the pads given for free in the country are either sub-standard or unsuitable for use due to the quality of materials used. In Nakuru for example, a medic warned that some of the sanitary pads used by girls in the area were dangerous to their health.
In a recent story published in one of the local dailies, Dr Felix Atisa said the usage of the towels could lead to infections and irreparable damage to the reproductive system of the users or lead to infertility all-together.“Apart from causing discomfort in class, this usage of bad sanitary towels could lead to bacterial and fungal infections as some of the materials used are corrosive,” he said.
A random check on the quality of good sanitary pads shows that they should be made of super absorbent polymers, enabling them to absorb large flows quickly and evenly.They should also have highly perforated sheets to enhance comfort and be well designed to prevent back and side leakage.
Kemunto asserts that providing free or subsidized sanitary towels should be the ultimate aim of the government as in the case of condoms.“Surely condoms are available for free in this country yet sex is a choice. Why not make sanitary pads free since menstruation is a must for any healthy girl who has reached puberty?” asked Kemunto.