Time is ripe period poverty and period shame in Kenya

  • 3 Mar 2023
  • 3 Mins Read
  • 〜 by Warothe

Nominated Senator Gloria Orwoba unorthodox bid to raise awareness on the scourge of period shame and period poverty was the talk of the country on Valentine’s Day 2023.

Orwoba caused a stir as she attended parliamentary proceedings in a white ‘blood-stained’ suit. The Senator drew criticism from her colleagues among them Senator Tabitha Mutinda who stated that, “there was a better way to raise this issue and this was not setting a good example to young women and girls.” Eventually Orwoba was ejected from Parliament by Senator speaker Amason Kingi for an “inappropriate” dress code.. She also trended online attracting both support and criticism.

Two weeks later on February 28, the Senator moved a motion on the provision of free sanitary towels to end period poverty. Her speech was delivered to a mainly, empty Senate, at the extreme tail end of the day’s proceedings. So dire was the situation that there was no time left to have the motion seconded with the presiding Speaker adjourning proceedings. This points to the mountains she has to move to get her motion passed in a Senate that appears to consider menstruation too taboo to discuss.

While moving the motion which seeks to tackle what she termed as the “shadow pandemic” of period shaming and period poverty, Orwoba laid bare alarming statistics showing that 65 percent of women and girls cannot afford sanitary towels, forcing them to use alternative materials.

Further, data from the Ministry of Education indicates that a girl that is absent from school for four days a month loses 13 learning days, equivalent to two weeks of learning in every school term, translating to 39 learning days or six weeks of learning time in a term and up to 18 of 108 weeks in primary and 24 weeks of 144 weeks of learning in secondary school.

The nominated Senator is following in the footsteps of Supreme Court judge Njoki Ndung’u and Embu Governor Cecily Mbarire who as nominated MPs then led the initiative that resulted in Kenya becoming the first country in the world to eliminate sales tax on sanitary towels in 2004. There were further gains at least on paper when in 2011, Kenya eliminated import duty on sanitary towels.

In 2017, there was amendment of the Basic Education Act with the following clauses inserted:

  • 39 (k) provide free, sufficient and quality sanitary towels to every girl child registered and enrolled in a public basic education institution who has reached puberty and provide a safe and environmentally sound mechanism for disposal of the sanitary towels.
  • 88 (g) conditional capitation funds to facilitate the acquisition of sufficient and quality sanitary towels to every girl child registered and enrolled in a public basic education institution who has reached puberty. As he assented to the act, President Uhuru Kenyatta declared that sanitary towels would be distributed free of charge in public schools.

According to Senator Orwoba, her motion on the provision of free sanitary towels to end period poverty seeks to enhance the amendment of the Basic Education Act by putting into law: the frequency of provision, the minimum budgetary allocation, stipulate which schools get priority, streamline procurement so that it is done through local manufacturers and finally include in the curriculum a dedicated lesson per week to teach girls about menstrual hygiene.

Since 2017, the government has been setting aside Sh400 million annually to purchase and distribute the commodity in public schools. This translates to Sh2.4 billion spend over the last six financial years on provision of sanitary towels.

This begs the question, why has the issue not been fully addressed warranting Sen. Orwoba’s intervention? Perhaps the Senate when discussing the motion should first seek an audit of how the funds have been spent by the Ministry of Education?

Given that Kenya almost 20 years ago eliminated sales tax on sanitary towels and over 10 years ago eliminated import duty on sanitary towels, questions remain on why are menstrual hygiene products still too expensive for a majority of women in Kenya? And how can local manufacturers be empowered to access the billions that government currently spends on provision of sanitary towels so as to enable them produce affordable, eco-friendly products while generating jobs preferably for marginalised women?

As the government, corporates and the public gear up to celebrate the International Women’s Day (IWD) 2023, the conversation around period shame and period poverty is timely.

IWD is celebrated every year in March to raise awareness of gender inequality and highlight the ongoing need for gender parity. The IWD 2023 campaign theme is #EmbraceEquity which seeks to get the world talking about why equal opportunities are no longer enough and can in fact be exclusionary, rather than inclusive.

The goal of equity is to change systemic and structural barriers that get in the way of people’s  ability to thrive. Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances, and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.

The effects of period shaming and poverty are evident in high levels of teenage pregnancy, increased HIV prevalence and huge numbers of early marriages. Addressing period poverty and period shaming therefore goes a long way in the ongoing fight against gender inequity.