Blood Business: making menstrual bleeding profitable

You, just like I, must have come across photos of people posing with young girls carrying sanitary pads after a donation of those items. Such is common in schools especially in rural areas and urban slums.

Many leaders like Kenya’s First lady Margaret Kenyatta, county first ladies, Woman reps, MPs, varsity students, individuals and most organizations who would want to give back, (through corporate social responsibility or corporate social investment) to the society have always found buying and distributing sanitary towels as the way to go. But this is often viewed by those who mean well as a cheap means of publicity. The girls are often made to pose for photos with the sanitary pads and tampons, and their photos shared on social media and also with potential donors.

What happens in the days when those sanitary towels are not distributed? This is a question that most “donors” do not want to answer. This is because their activities are not continuous, they appear for antics then disappear while leaving the young girls to continue using pieces of mattresses, old cloths, leaves, socks, sheets of newspapers as makeshift pads. Some girls resort to other means such as sex for pads.

The issue of donation of sanitary towels has drawn the attention of many people who see this growing culture as degrading to women and young girls. One such person is Dr Abande Erick of Hericpharm Limited.

Dr Abande proposes the banning of such acts, “Carrying sanitary pads to schools and taking photos with the young girls then posting on social media should be banned as it does not help the girls but only profits the people looking for the donations in the pretext that they are helping these young girls.”

He opines that monthly period is not a one time natural thing like a natural disaster that needs one time intervention. He questions the sustainability of the programmes set by NGO’s and politicians to distribute sanitary hygiene products to our young girls.

“NGOs have always come with good intentions. But the biggest problem is that most such projects don’t have a clear path to sustainability when the programs end or the sponsors withdraw. The beneficiaries remain in more squalor than before. They later become depressed. Provision of free sanitary towels has been a major culprit in such scenarios” Dr Abande told 254News.

A study by Menstrual Hygiene Day in 2016 revealed that 65% of Kenyan women and girls cannot afford sanitary towels. Another study in 2015 had shown that 1 in 10 of adolescent girls engaged in sex to get money to pay for sanitary pads. Data from the Ministry of Education indicates that a girl absent from school for four days in a month loses 13 learning days equivalent to two weeks of learning in every school term. In an academic year which is nine months, a girl loses 39 learning days equivalent to six weeks of learning time.

In a bid to improve access to sanitary pads by women and girls, the Kenyan government repealed the tax on sanitary pads in 2004. Further to this, in 2011, the government set aside funds to distribute free sanitary towels to teenage girls in schools. However, this program is faced by the challenge of supplies often running out as well as pilferage of these products.

In June 2019, President Uhuru Kenyatta signed the Basic Education Amendment Act into law. The act places the responsibility of providing free, sufficient and quality sanitary towels to every girl child registered and enrolled in a public basic education institution and has reached puberty, on the government. It also provided “a safe and environmental sound mechanism for disposal”.

But even in such environment where sanitary towels should be provided free to school-going girls in their puberty, the country lost a 14-year-old girl in Kabiangek Primary School in Konoin, Bomet county who was ashamed and embarrassed by her teacher when she first got her period. She was allegedly called dirty and expelled from her classroom prompting her suicide.

The ministry of education boasts of spending sh470 million to provide pads to at least 1.4 million girls for a period of four months at a time many girls are continually dropping out of school due to lack of the same.

In August 2019 Education Principal secretary Belio Kipsang was named in a scandal that cost taxpayers over sh200 million. Belio is said to have lobbied for a firm associated with his wife to win a lucrative tender to supply sanitary towels.

We have seen organizations year in year out who are claiming to be providing sanitary towels, our searches could not lead us to satisfactory answers.

Dr Abande advocates for teaching of young girls that monthly periods are epitome of womanhood and not a punishment, that they should be happy about it and also reduction of stigma around menstruation, “Going forward, we need to start teaching young girls that monthly periods are the epitome of womanhood. They should be happy and celebrate it rather than being ashamed of it. Parents need to play a major role in preparing their young girls for it”, says Dr Abande.

Access to high quality menstrual hygiene remains a big challenge in Kenya to date. Women and girls in rural areas still have to make do with rugged and old cloths during their monthly bleeding. Slums in urban areas like Kibra, Katwekera, Majengo, Mathare, name them, have all witnessed such despite the glorified efforts by politicians and NGOs to reach out to them. Sustainability remains the big challenge.

“In my view, we must not force the use of sanitary pads in the extremely remote areas of Kenya. There are readily available remedies used over the years by the women and girls in such areas. We are a third world country, we cannot afford it. NGOs should be stopped from providing unsustainable remedies. We should instead find a way to make these local interventions as well as reusable towels affordable and accessible” Dr Abande told 254News in an interview.

Sheaffer Ojore, in one of her tweets under #MyAlwaysExperience, shared a research by Pakistani women that found out that the occurrence of vaginal rashes and infections went down to almost zero after they stopped using always, “Pakistani women are claiming that the occurrence of vaginal infections and rashes has gone down to almost zero after they stopped using Always”

The issue of quality has also been a major concern. Recently, there have been spirited campaigns on social media to force companies manufacturing these sanitary towels to consider their quality and safety. One such company is Proctor & Gamble(P&G), the manufacturers behind Always Sanitary Towels. Some of the Proctor & Gamble products from such companies have been claimed supplied to Kenyan markets are said to cause itching, irritation, boils, ‘leaks’, burns and rashes.

The new low cost disposable sanitary pads from China have also raised major quality concerns since they entered the Kenyan market.

“It’s sad to see people donating to the needy teenage girls always pads. This thing brand really messed me up…” Gina Kung’u says in a tweet.

For Dr Abande, the provision of Sanitary towels should be left for the government, “If we have to, then let provision of sanitary pads be the sole responsibility of the government of Kenya. Let it be incorporated under the free primary education department as a primary right of the girlchild upto the age of 18 years. NGOs, politicians and their wives can provide help through this channel”

Every girl want to be treated with care and dignity especially when they are having their menses since in most cases it comes with stomach cramps, and other related conditions.

In January 2017, Zambia passed a labour law with a provision that allows female workers to take off one day a month, Mother’s Day, which applies to all women, whether or not they have children. This means women living in Zambia do not have to make prior arrangements with their bosses to be absent from work, they simply notifies their superiors that they are taking Mother’s Day. What has stopped Kenya from adopting the same?

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