NAIROBI, Kenya May 12 – For adolescent girls living in the sprawling Kibera slum in the capital Nairobi, menstrual hygiene is a major challenge due to their family background because most survive on less than a dollar a day.
And just like most children born and brought up in informal settlements, most girls here rely on well-wishers to help them acquire sanitary pads.
And when help does not come their way, they opt for unconventional ways which include the use of rags from old clothes.
“Sometimes I just wish the day does not come because it is a nightmare, people think sanitary towels are so cheap, but they are so expensive to us,” said Anita a teenage mother in Kibera slum, “a girl can do anything to afford or get a sanitary pad. And I mean anything. These are some of the needs that have forced some girls into prostitution notwithstanding the risks involved.”
According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), ensuring menstrual hygiene and health – beyond being a basic human right, as outlined by the Human Rights Council in 2018 – also makes good economic sense.
“Investing in girls’ and women’s menstrual health is a cost-effective development intervention that has long-term benefits for the reduction of child and maternal mortality and leads to stronger economic growth,” it states.
In 2016 Menstrual Health Day (MH Day) published a study titled, Menstrual Health in Kenya, which established that over 65 percent of women and girls in the country are unable to afford or access sanitary towels.
Worse still, a booklet published by UNESCO in 2014 titled Puberty Education & Menstrual Hygiene Management reveals that at least 1 in 10 girls in sub-Saharan Africa is likely to drop out of school because of losing up to 20 school days during their monthly periods.
That is why several Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) are engaged in trying to bridge the gap, which remains too wide due to lack of funds as outlined by Abdul Ali Hussein, popularly known as Mr Pads, who is the co-founder of Kirta Touch the Needy Organisation.
“We don’t want to see girls dropping out of school but it is a major challenge because we don’t have sufficient funds to get the girls sanitary pads whenever they need them,” Hassan said, supporting himself on crutches after breaking his leg while playing football recently, “we are happy when the dignity of girls and women in the society is protected. No girl or woman should be subjected to stigma because of period.”
When girls are unable to manage their menstrual hygiene, their self-esteem drops because at their age of between 12 and 17, most of them are yet to understand themselves well and what it means due to the rapid physical, psychological and cognitive changes, the booklet states.
According to the 2014 UNESCO booklet, girls report experiencing stress, shame, embarrassment, confusion and fear due to a lack of knowledge and inability to manage their menstruation.
On Tuesday, Hussein, or Mr Pads as he prefers to be called to, was holding a mentorship session for nearly a dozen teenagers and young mothers who had gathered at the organization’s centre in Lindi, a village in the Southern part of Kibera.
“We don’t just distribute pads,” he said, “we also run a mentorship program that targets teenagers and young mothers to help them cope up with the challenges of life.”
For many of the ladies, this organisation is a safe refuge for them after facing rejection at home.
While some of the ladies who were attending the mentorship program at Lindi area on Tuesday were carrying children as little as 2 months, some were pregnant, painting a grim picture of the dire situation organizations such as Hussein’s is trying to tackle.
Some, he told us, are school girls who got pregnant during the COVID-19 lockdown that forced schools to close down for a year since in March 2020.
“It is time for social and governmental attitudes toward the human right to sanitation, hygiene and menstrual health to change,” UNFPA says, adding “Periods need to be accepted as a normal biological occurrence, not a shameful secret. Girls need to be able to remain and succeed in school. Women must have equal access to economic and social power. And girls and women both need to be able to make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health.”
“We register new cases often especially with this COVID-19 pandemic that has made life hard for many families. We have so many girls who got pregnant during that lockdown,” Hussesin said.
When Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha released national examination results for Standard 8 candidates in April, he shocked the nation when he said that more than 12,000 candidates, mainly girls did not turn up to sit for the examinations despite having been registered for the tests.Thousands more also missed out on the secondary school examinations, KCSE, whose results were released on Monday.
“Some of the girls who dropped out of school after getting pregnant during COVID have enrolled in our programme,” Hussein said, “we keep talking to them not to lose hope because of the many challenges they face on a daily basis.”
Hussein said the girls go to the centre for at least three hours daily for mentorship classes, where they are also allowed to open up and share their individual experiences.
“Our aim is to have the girls speak out as much as possible so we get to understand their challenges because each one has their own unique issues,” he said.
On of the girl, aged 18, who spoke to us said, “I felt rejected in society until i started coming here, the mentorship classes are very important to us because they help us understand how to cope with the challenges we face daily in society.”
The girl who only identified herself as Stella, was carrying a baby aged 9 months.
“I am confident that I will be able to resume studies. I am in Form 3,” she said.