OPINION: Urgent need to step up action, investment in menstrual health

OPINION: Urgent need to step up action, investment in menstrual health

By Stephen Ougo

Approximately 65 per cent of women and girls in Kenya cannot perennially access sanitary pads, clean water, and safe and private toilet facilities.

According to the Ministry of Public Service and Gender, despite the provisions of free basic education in the country, many girls continue to miss school due to issues related to menstruation.

According to data from the Ministry of Education, a girl that is absent from school for four days in 28 days loses 13 learning days, equivalent to two weeks of learning in every school term.

In an academic year, a girl loses 39 learning days equivalent to six weeks of learning time. A girl in primary school between grades 6 and 8 loses 18 learning weeks out of 108 weeks.

Within the four years of high school a girl can lose 156 learning days equivalent to almost 24 weeks out of 144 weeks of learning.

Data from menstrual health management policy of 2019-2030 indicates that in many schools and communities, access to water and sanitary facilities is a challenge, with only 24% reporting adequacy of sanitary facilities.

It further showed that 18% of learning institutions had hand washing facilities and soap.

These statistics give a basic picture of functionality without linked information to cleanliness, lockable doors, lighting and privacy, suitability for washing, changing and safety.

Girls report their reluctance to use school toilets and women to use toilets while travelling, while in the market or at work.

Additionally, access to sanitary towels is a huge challenge for many girls who come from poor families in Kenya and they suffer from stigma and shame as a result.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlights and exacerbates persisting challenges related to menstruation. There are many instances where girls drop out of school once they start their periods.

Staying at home leaves them even more vulnerable to violations of their rights such from situations such as child marriage or defilements.

The culture of silence around menstruation stifles women and girls’ ability to express their sexuality and hinders their participation which is a fundamental human rights principle.

Women and girls’ voices are important to ensuring that their needs are understood and prioritised. They are experts in their own experiences and their voices can be invaluable in identifying and addressing challenges related to menstrual hygiene.

There is also a need to implement reproductive health policies that have been dormant so as to address these issues at hand. Policies and guidelines need to be adopted to tackle gender inequalities in practice and strengthen women’s voice and participation.

To sum up everything, there is an urgent demand to increase access of adolescent girls to reproductive health services so as to increase their retention in schools, transition to higher levels of learning and thereby enhance academic performance.

If women and girls are well informed about pre-menarche, understand their bodies, can access the correct information without shame, they will choose products based on their needs and economic capacity.

The Kenyan government needs to fast-track implementation of the recently signed National Menstrual Hygiene Management Policy.

The policy priorities provision of information to women and girls, men and boys access to ensure that the myths, taboos and stigma around menstruation are addressed.

Stephen Ougo is a Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights Advocate.