Menstrual cycles are natural and nothing to be ashamed of

Senator Gloria Orwoba’s parliamentary action this week was a classic act of protest. Misreading its significance, Speaker Amason Kingi also missed a great moment to act in solidarity with millions of girls and women across the republic. Period poverty and the right to dignity is not a personal or private matter but an issue we all need to understand and rally around.

The first-timer Senator catalysed international attention by walking into chamber with a beautiful white suit, green shirt, and a red stain around her pubic area on Valentine’s Day. She boldly explained that, like many girls and women across the country, she was on her menstrual cycle. In her hands was a motion calling for sanitary towels to be provided free by the government, investment in decent and private toilets, and handwashing stations across our schools.

Rather than seize the moment to discuss the motion, the “accident” drew frustration and outrage from both female and male Senators. Like millions of girls and women nationally, Gloria Orwoba too, was instructed to leave a public space. Too late, coming before a set of budgetary discussions, the black-white-green-red action (sic) had served its purpose.

On any day of the week, between 300-500 million girls and women are menstruating all over the world. No less than a quarter of them lack consistent access to menstrual products, decent and dignified spaces. Denied menstrual hygiene, women and girls living with period poverty make do with paper, old clothes, leaves, cotton wool or stay at home. Period poverty is a global public health crisis that most do not wish to be reminded of or address.

Sixty-five per cent of Kenyan women and girls cannot afford sanitary products or are forced to rely on sexual partners for pads. The stigma and condemnation experienced by Senator Orwoba this week is sufficient to lock many girls out of school, especially in rural and ASAL areas. As Speaker Kingi lectured Orwoba, when women and girls are on their periods, even Allah and God forsake them.

Like Kwale Woman Representative Zulekha Hassan walking into the National Assembly with her breastfeeding infant to highlight the lack of breast-feeding facilities in workspaces in 2020, Senator Orwoba’s action directs public attention to a burning issue. Why doesn’t the Government provide free menstrual products to those that desperately need them? Why is this essential service left to women’s health civic organisations, development partners, individual philanthropists and boda boda drivers? Why are we able to provide free condoms but not free pads?

Those paying close attention to eliminating period poverty know that Kenya made global history in 2004 when President Kibaki’s government abolished sales tax for menstrual products. In 2017, President Kenyatta declared that sanitary towels would be distributed free of charge in public schools. Two years ago, the government declared it was failing to meet this goal. The real challenge before Senators and other policymakers is how in the prevailing fiscal crisis can the 1+47 governments make further progress.

Challenging social norms and taboos that shame or stigmatise periods is a starting point. We don’t stigmatise bleeding from cut wounds why should there be so much shame for something even more natural? With 40 per cent increases in the costs of imported sanitary products, can policymakers encourage low cost, eco-friendly and locally manufactured products? Not just tampons, pads but also menstrual cups and other re-useable options. Can we safeguard the limited public investment available by ensuring that government procurement is open, transparent, and protected from those sitting in offices and bars drooling over tenders?

Perhaps the next time a woman or a girl stands to authentically address this issue, we can respond with less dismissal or vitriol. It is striking that few Senators attempted to de-escalate the situation or walk out in solidarity with Hon. Gloria Orwoba. The bold Senator can take courage that her protest may have endeared her to millions of girls facing similar ridicule for no fault of their own, but poverty.

First published in The Standard on 18th February 2023. Kindly reproduced here with permission from The Standard.

Irũngũ Houghton is Amnesty International Kenya Executive Director and writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]