Can you remember your first period? For most, it’s often a new and somewhat awkward and even daunting experience. You’re excited that your body is signaling to you that you’re becoming more grown-up, but also apprehensive about the monthly ritual. It’s safe to say that for most, your first period is a safe experience when you’re given a knowing smile or a congratulations hug by your family, friends, and elders in your community. Heck, maybe you even had a period party thrown in your honour, where your first steps into womanhood were celebrated with red velvet cake with pink frosting. That’s how your first period should be treated. A celebration of your remarkable and beautiful body.
Unfortunately, this is not the case for all girls around the world, especially those living in countries where the taboos surrounding menstruation are particularly prevalent. The world was reminded of this fact this month when a 14-year-old Kenyan girl took her own life after allegedly being period shamed, by her school teacher no less. The teacher is said to have embarrassed the girl when she bled onto her school uniform during class, expelling her from the classroom and calling her “dirty”. She was found dead shortly after. The girl’s mother said this was her first period and she did not have access to a pad, highlighting the imperative need for adequate sanitary care in the region of Kabiangek where the teen lived.
“She had nothing to use as a pad. When the blood stained her clothes, she was told to leave the classroom and stand outside,” the girl’s mother said.
What makes this incident all the frustrating is that in 2017 Kenya implemented a law requiring the Kenyan government to give free sanitary pads to all schoolgirls. The lack of implementation of the law is subject to a parliamentary investigation, with female MPs protesting about the girl’s death. Both the teacher’s terrible handling of the situation and the lack of action from local authorities have caused more than 200 parents to protest outside the school, with police using tear gas and arresting 5 protesters. As a result, the school has been temporarily closed. Police say the reasons behind the girl’s death are under investigation.
Adequate access to sanitary products in sub-Saharan Africa is a major issue for women and girls, who often have no other choice to miss school during their period or end up dropping out altogether once they begin to menstruate. A 2014 UNESCO report estimated that in 10 girls missed school during their period, meaning they were missing out on at least 20% of their education yearly. There are grave concerns that the $4.5 million dollars set aside by the Kenyan government to fund the initiative that was meant to give school girls free pads hasn’t been implemented. The country’s Education Cabinet Minister, George Magoha, stating that in a random sampling of Kenyan schoolgirls, none said that they had received free pads from the government. Minister Passaris says that the program’s budget needs to be at least 10 times what it currently is if it is to succeed in its mission.
“We had a candid discussion about sanitary towels, the little girl who died, and the investigation that is ensuing,” the minister said. “We need to make it so that girls aren’t ashamed of their periods, and I don’t think we’ve won that battle yet.”
Words by Alicia Franceschini