Poor women face challenges of access to sanitary towels

Kisumu governor's wife Dorothy Nyong'o distributes sanitary pads to students. FILE PHOTO | NMG

What you need to know:

  • A study conducted in western Kenya shows 75 per cent of female use commercial sanitary towels while 25 per cent depend on traditional materials.

Judith Iminza kept staring at one of the blank walls in a single room household, where she and other women from her neighbourhood were meeting in a support group. She was lost in thought, and was increasingly zoning out of a conversation that was now getting intense.

No one heard her voice for the first 30 minutes of the meeting held at the heart of Kibera slums; a gathering I had been invited to attend by a friend on a hot Friday afternoon mid May.

On that day, the discussion was on the challenges women and girls in the informal settlement faced during their monthly periods.

“What has been your experience madam? I asked Ms Iminza, who was seated to my right, in the process startling her back to reality.

Leaning forward, with hands clutched between her thighs and despair written all over her face, she narrated of the numerous times she had to forego sanitary towels in order to feed her family.

“For some women, like myself, our husbands do not help in any way; and we are forced to take care of every need in that house. And when it gets to that time of the month, it becomes a challenge to think about pads if there is no food," she said.

With a shorter-than-average monthly cycle, which sees her get her periods twice a month, Iminza confirmed that on several occasions she has ended up using old rags.

"Unfortunately, in those days when I cannot afford sanitary towels, and I have to use rags instead, I cannot go out to seek the casual jobs that earn me my sustenance," she said.

Saumu Hassan, a member of the support group, like Iminza is also unable to meet her monthly menstrual needs owing to her heavy flow that demands at least two packets of pads every month.

Iminza, a mother of four and Ms Hassan are among 65 per cent of Kenyan women and girls who are unable to afford sanitary towels, according to Menstrual Health in Kenya, a study commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

This means that a majority of women in Kenya are forced to device ways - some deplorable- of coping with their menstrual days.

A study published on the Journal of Women’s Health in 2015 found that 25 per cent of women in rural western Kenya used materials such as torn cloth and paper in place of sanitary pads.

The use of such 'traditional' items was noted to be high, at 62 per cent, among women with no formal education.

The study also found that 10 per cent of girls under the age of 15 years depended on self-made sanitary pads, owing to the steep prices of better options.

BD Graphic

Further, the study said that out of the 75 per cent of women that were found to use commercial pads, three quarters received them from sexual partners.

“Menstrual needs of impoverished females in rural settings likely leads to increased physical and sexual harms,” wrote the authors of the report.

There appeared to be some relief, when in June last year, President Uhuru Kenyatta signed the Basic Education Amendment Act Bill into law, compelling the government to provide free, sufficient and quality sanitary towels to school going girls.

The law, however, failed to address the plight of girls not in schools and impoverished women, who form the bulk of women struggling with menstrual hygiene.

Public Health and Sanitation Deputy Director Jackson Muriithi, in an interview, acknowledged that women in Kenya generally have a challenge accessing menstrual products.

“We are aware that some cannot afford and others do not know that they exist,” said Mr Muriithi.

"Currently, with the help of Ministry of Education we are in the process of integrating menstrual education in our curriculum to demystify the topic. We want to break the silence about it first for us to even be in a position to help women access the pads,” said Mr Muriithi.

Muriithi further said that his ministry, in partnership with that of Education and other partners, are working on developing a Menstrual Hygiene Policy, which will address various issues including access to disposable and re-usable products.

“The biggest issue as to why women cannot afford the products is because the sector still doesn’t allow for innovation. KEBS has not come up with standards and guidelines for importation or manufacture of, especially, the re-usable sanitary towels and it is difficult to attract large scale investments,” said Mr Muriithi.\

BD Graphic

Ibrahim Basweti, an official at Public Health and Sanitation, echoing Muriithi's words, confirmed that “KEBS technical committee dealing with medical and textiles hygiene products had initiated the process to develop the standards for the manufacture and importation of sanitary products,” he said indicating that it will take some time before the standards are confirmed.

“Once the standards are out then we can realise the dream of re-usable sanitary towels as the country will scale-up production and allow competition to the advantage of the users,” added Muriithi.

This state of affairs means that impoverished women and girls will have to wait a little longer before accessing affordable and re-usable sanitary towels.

Today, Impact Africa Industries in Kitale is the only prominent firm producing re-usable sanitary towels but its output is not enough to cater to the needs of every needy Kenyan woman.

“Equitable inclusion provides for access to services and products for all citizens of a country. Access to sanitary towels is a human rights issue and should be addressed seriously for Kenya to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” said Tobias Omufwoko, Country Cordinator for Water Sanitary and Hygiene (WASH) Alliance Kenya, chapter under Ministry of Health.

And for women like Nelly Luchesi, a member of Iminza's support group, and a mother of two teeange girls, any delay in policies and standards allowing for the availability of cheap or free sanitary pads is unwelcome.

"I work really hard to get money so that my daughters needs are covered. But to be honest it is a tough struggle, and I am regularly forced to used old cloth when my time comes," said Luchesi.

"It is great to hear that the government plans to make it mandatory for school girls to get free sanitary towels, but we urge them to look into the needs of other women outside the bracket too. It will help a great deal if the policies are changed to accommodate us too," she added.

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