“Did you hear about the senator’s stained pantsuit?!” a colleague asked when I arrived in Nairobi last week. I hadn’t! On February 15, 2023, 36-year old Kenyan Senator Gloria Orwoba had been publicly denounced by several fellow senators for being in the Senate Chamber with a bloodstained garment. She said that her period had come on unexpectedly. (There are 21 female senators in Kenya’s 67-member Senate, owing mainly to the 20 seats reserved for women).
The video of the incident is quite something. A female senator―from Orwoba’s own party―questions Orwoba’s adherence to the Senate's dress code, referring to menstruation as “something we don’t discuss in public” and repeatedly calling Orwoba’s attire “indecent.” Opposition (male) senators then take turns calling the bloodstained pantsuit a stunt, something “that should never be allowed to happen in the Senate of Kenya,” and a “disgrace” that brings “a lot of shame to this House.” Senator Catherine Mumma, a respected human rights lawyer, is the only one who stands up for Orwoba.
Orwoba rejects the criticism: “I’m shocked that someone can stand here and say the House has been disgraced because a woman has had her period. So, women are not supposed to be in the Senate, because we have periods? Honestly, the most someone can do, is come to me and tell me, I’m sorry, are you having period cramps, shall I give you pain killers, but instead, I am actually being castigated for having my period!”
The Senate Speaker, while acknowledging that “having periods is never a crime,” asks Orwoba to leave the chamber, adding that his request is not discriminatory since both the Bible and the Koran consider that menstruating women shouldn’t touch any holy books (exploding head emoji inserted here!). Coincidentally (or not), that same day, another female senator had been asked to leave the chamber because her top was sleeveless. The policing of the appearance and attire of women in politics―in fact, in all aspects of public life―is pervasive and universal.
As a young, still menstruating senator, Orwoba is definitely in tune with Kenya’s vibrant “period justice” movement. When you meet feminist activists in Kenya, they rarely fail to mention the cost of menstrual pads, the lack of clean toilets or running water in schools, the stigma and shame surrounding periods, or all of the above.
As a result of activist pressure, Kenya was the first country to abolish VAT/sales tax on sanitary products, in 2004, well ahead of the US or Europe. In 2017, activists also succeeded in persuading the Kenyan Parliament to amend the Education Act to ensure “free, sufficient and quality sanitary towels” for every schoolgirl, as well as “a safe and environmental sound mechanism for disposal”. Unfortunately, parliamentarians failed to make sufficient budget allocations, which resulted in schools receiving few if any pads. Orwoba is pushing for government funding to finally provide pads for all girls who need them in all public schools, in line with Kenya’s Menstrual Hygiene Management Strategy 2019-2030.
Orwoba received both praise and criticism for her stand. Sakaja Johnson, the governor of Nairobi City County, tweeted that Orwoba's actions were “bold and provocative” and promised to promote the availability of free sanitary pads throughout Nairobi.
Women’s and health groups rallied behind Orwoba: “If this makes you uncomfortable, it’s a mission accomplished. It’s supposed to sting like that until we have free sanitary towels for girls,” tweeted one activist. Advocacy group Global Citizen Africa agreed: “Breaking the period stigma is CRUCIAL to ending period poverty.”
Monica Oguttu, the brilliant nurse-midwife who runs women’s health group KMET (Kisumu Medical Education Trust) in Western Kenya, thought Orwoba’s action, while perhaps a stunt, was strategic and effective: “It showed menstrual issues are stigmatized even at the highest level of Parliament. Now you can imagine a girl in a remote primary school who suddenly realizes she has stained her clothes. That’s where we are. Looking at how men, and even fellow elite women, reacted to Senator Gloria. That tells you we need to do a lot.”
The need is great. A 2020 Ministry of Health study showed that only 46% of women and girls in rural areas and 65% in urban areas had access to and used disposable pads. Out of a total of 6 million girls aged 10 to 19 in Kenya, at least 2.6 million cannot afford menstrual products. Many of them turn to homemade options that don’t work well and cause infections, such as newspaper, partly dried cow dung, leaves, or pieces of cloth. Or, as Oguttu, told me, the girls get “help” from a man to buy disposable pads: “You don’t have a sanitary towel, you are in school, you are from a poor family, and then you get into a man’s truck, and you become pregnant.”
The high inflation affecting Kenya means the cost of pads nearly doubled in 2022, putting them further out of reach. A 2016 Ministry of Health study also revealed that only 18% of schools had taps with running water in or near the toilets. So much left to do!
Taboos and stigma about menstruation also remain strong in Kenya. Women and girls have little access to accurate information and education about this crucial topic and about sexuality generally, resulting in a culture of shame and silence. In 2019, a 14-year-old Nairobi girl even took her own life after a teacher shamed her for having her period and staining her uniform. Almost half of girls surveyed by the Ministry of Health in 2020 believed that menstrual blood contains harmful substances and that it is wrong to discuss menstruation. Traditional beliefs common in rural areas include the idea that menstruating women cause chaos (!!) or spoil crops.
In an effort to help the most vulnerable girls, KMET works with a number of community-based organizations and schools in Western Kenya to educate girls and boys as young as eight about periods, provide girls with pads and painkillers, and improve school facilities (e.g. put a door on the toilet, and ensure water is available to wash up). The result? “School attendance and performance really shot up, and also the girls’ self-esteem and confidence. Their personality just blooms like a flower. It’s a big change!” says Oguttu. When a school principal pushed back on menstrual management as the reason for this dramatic improvement, Oguttu asked him to point to another factor that could have made the difference: “You had the same teachers those two years, and the girls were failing.” He was unable to name any.
Oguttu and her team are also hard at work to persuade the governors of the 14 counties of the Lake Region Economic Bloc (the Kenyan counties around Lake Victoria in Western Kenya) to include menstrual management, running water and sanitation in their county development plan and budgets. Oguttu is hopeful, now that the (male) governor of Busia county has stepped forward to drive this movement. In Oguttu’s words, “You can’t talk about girls’ education without talking about menstrual hygiene.”
Meanwhile, KMET has been producing Comfort-brand organic, washable, and reusable sanitary pads in Kisumu since 2015. They cost 420 Kenyan shillings (or US $3.00) for six pads, and are donated by KMET or paid for by organizations and schools. The pads typically last a year. Oguttu is aware of the downside of reusable pads: you have to wash and dry them, despite water not always being clean or abundant. But she says that when KMET offers girls in remote rural areas a choice between reusable and disposable pads, the majority of girls choose reusable, because this way they are sure they won’t run out.
The issue isn't confined to Kenya. A 2019 study of female university students aged 18-24 in the US found that 14% of them couldn’t afford menstrual products at some point in the previous year, and 10% couldn’t afford them every month. And university students are arguably more privileged than the average person in the US.
At least 500 million women and girls worldwide still don’t have the products they need to manage their periods safely, effectively and with dignity. A 2014 UNICEF study found that 1 in 10 girls in sub-Saharan Africa missed school during their period. Another UN report found that some girls miss 20% of their schooling for this reason, making them more likely to drop out of school altogether. Ensuring that pads or tampons, pain management, toilets and running water are available (and affordable) to all who need them is a critical issue of equity and justice, as is providing accurate information and ending the stigma and taboo attached to menstruation.
In 2022, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement on menstrual health, a first for the office. Menstruation was recognized as a human rights issue, at last!
Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at the time, noted that: “Around the world, women and girls and other people who menstruate continue to face barriers in the realization of their menstrual health deeply rooted in stigma and harmful stereotypes regarding menstruation, reinforcing patriarchal and discriminatory systems and societies, and resulting in denial of their human rights and further gender inequality.” The examples she listed included: stigmatizing menstruation as something that needs to be hidden, prohibiting participation in religious gatherings, and being forced to isolate during a period. Another example is the belief and practice in many societies that a girl is ready for marriage after her first menstrual cycle, ending her education and subjecting her to early pregnancy. [my emphasis]
Bachelet rightly saluted the “young feminist activists” who, in every region of the world, “have been leading grassroots campaigns and initiatives, including in social media, to challenge stigma, taboos, gender inequality, and period poverty.”
Interviewed about her stand, Senator Orwoba felt that to bring change, “it is important to dare to be shameless.” The backlash she suffered, she said, proved that period stigma is still alive and well. “The biggest impact is that we got men talking about periods, and that breaks cultural barriers to some level,” she said. “Period shaming starts with the man and the boy, because they have been brought up to believe that if a woman happens to have a stain, it’s an appropriate response to laugh at, or castigate her, and then the woman has been taught that they need to go into hiding. That’s the unlearning that we need to do.”
If this is the “chaos” and the “indecency” that period justice advocates cause, bring it on! We can learn from Kenya’s example and its activists’ dedication. Are sanitary products VAT or sales tax free where you live? Find out from the tools developed by organizations Global Citizen here and Period Tax here. Are schools and other public facilities providing free menstrual products? Scotland now does, for all its residents. In the US, only 15 states and DC do. If not, start or join a campaign to change that!
In solidarity against period shaming and period poverty,