OPINION: If we want to move towards menstrual equity, we must be inclusive

By Janet Mbugua

Initially, focus was mostly on mobilising women and girls because they are the most affected when it comes to issues regarding menstruation.

But we live in a patriarchal society where the ‘gatekeepers’ of cultural stigma and taboo, whether it’s unconscious bias or intentional, are the men: the cultural leaders, the heads of the home, heads of the church, etc

They often perpetuate the stigma and preconceived notions; so we need to get men as allies and have conversations with them. When a woman or girl menstruates it doesn’t mean she’s dirty; it doesn’t mean she doesn’t belong in the place of worship; it doesn’t mean she is unable to perform her task.

Have everyone acknowledge that menstruation only means that a girl is only going through a natural process, and shouldn’t be treated in an inhumane manner.

When everyone is onboard, and included, everyone wins; because now we are on the same page, and in cognizance of the fact that ill-treating a woman or girl because of her periods is a human rights violation that affects so many women, girls and families.

The theme of this year’s Menstrual Health Day on May 28 is ‘Action and Investment in Menstrual Hygiene and Health’. The objective is to create awareness among every individual regarding the challenges and hardships girls and women face during menstruation.

Period poverty

Girls and women need to have a choice on what products to use and have information on how to use it safely, dispose properly or how to wash it if it’s reusable.

Period poverty is one of the most indignifying situations in the world because it means that women many times are forced to choose between food and sanitary products. It is a reality for many women and girls globally because period products are expensive.

Expensive is relative, but because they are priced within a range that is comparative to either piece-meal shopping for the home, in terms of food or other necessities, that’s where the competition comes in.

This means that women and girls are often forced to resort to using either unsanitary products or stay home and not go to school; and for a woman, she is not sure how to go about her day to day job. When you think about the greater implication, you have less participation of women and girls and this affects the economy.

Data on this is still new as it is one of the most under-researched spaces in the world. However, one of the most prominent studies published on menstrual equity is by Dominika Kulczyk, a Polist philanthropist.

The 2020 study titled A Bloody Problem: Period Poverty, Why We Need to End It and How to Do It. Kulczyk says she undertook the project because she wanted to review the current state of funding and solutions to ending period poverty but she could not find data. She realised that not only is it under-researched, it is also under-funded, meaning there is not enough investment.

If we do not look at menstrual health on a national development scale, we will continue having sporadic conversations that don’t bear fruit, all the while leaving so many girls, women and their families behind.

Don’t we care enough for half the population in the world to allow them to menstruate with dignity? To allow them to better afford products?

The only way to end period poverty is to make products more accessible of free – like in New Zealand and Scotland – or have more investment in addressing menstrual equity issues.

Menstrual health policy

The government has put a lot of thought and leadership into discussions on menstrual health and the launch of the Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) Policy and Strategy.

However, when it comes to implementation and public discourse, there is a need for a more intentional and aggressive approach. Kenya is the ‘poster child’ for policies: we have some of the best policies in the world but we struggle with implementation. Without it, all we have is a beautiful policy that sits on our desks and gathers dust and is not necessarily being translated into ‘what needs to be done next’.

The framework was launched in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and there have been several conversations in an attempt to get the discourse going, but it is slow. If we are passionate about ensuring speedy access to information and products, we would treat it as a matter of urgency.

We have been talking about menstrual health for a long time: from 2013 is when the needle shifted a little bit in Kenya, when this matter was mainstreamed and this is what may have motivated discussion on the 2015 framework. If this was treated with urgency, we would have made greater progress.

As long as it is perceived as hizo vitu za wanawake na wasichana (women/girl ‘things’); continues to be shrouded in taboo; or elicits questions like ‘why are you talking about it so openly, it’s a very private matter’, menstrual health challenges will continue to be the reason why millions of women and girls around the world do not progress.

Implementation needs to be done urgently, effectively and with a multi-stakeholder approach (public and private sector, schools, religious leaders, those who are differently abled).

We need:

This is an excerpt of the menstrual health and hygiene panel session that was aired on NTV Kenya on May 25, 2021

Janet Mbugua is the founder of Inua Dada Foundation, an organisation that works to identify issues that affects the attendance and performance of primary school girls in Kenya such as lack of sanitary towels, suitable sanitation facilities and access to basic health care and support services. She is also the author of the book My First Time, that brings together 50 women’s voices who narrate their personal stories on menstruation

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