Taboo in Kenya
Right now, we are sitting in the plane on our way home after 3 hectic and incredible weeks in Kenya and India!
Before we left, we wrote out our main objectives for the trip;
- To learn and understand better, the issues that girls and women in Kenya and parts of India face on their period, and to understand the culture and stigma surrounding menstruation in different areas.
- To experience how different organisations and groups respond to support these girls and women, and to learn how menstrual care is most efficiently delivered.
We began in Kenya at an amazing place called The Mully Children’s Family. MCF is a family of over 13 thousand children cumulatively, all of whom were and are given an education, health care, family, friends and stability through their introduction to MCF from the streets of Kenya and surrounding areas. We spoke to the doctors, social workers and everyone in between about the menstrual and reproductive issues that many of the female students faced as orphans, child mothers, abandoned children and also throughout their integration into MCF. Some of the major issues involve lack of, or unaffordable sanitary pads. This leads the girls to go to extremes, even offering sex to men for money to purchase the pads. Otherwise they must simply skip school on their period. In this case, the likelihood of dropping out completely is dramatically increased, as is their probability of being married at a very young age, and/or becoming a child mother.
MCF does regular drops of sanitary pads to its own, and surrounding community schools. However, when the budget is tight, it’s very difficult to justify allocating money to pads over something like food or beds for newcomers. In the past, MCF introduced the girls to reusable pads, however one of the social workers mentioned to us that the girls started the habit of swapping their damp, drying pads for their friends dry but used pads which threatened huge medical complications especially when considering the HIV positive children that live there. Now, MCF distribute regular sanitary pads to their children and thanks to their sustainable focus and development, have enough funds every month to give both their own girls pads as well as girls who attend surrounding schools.
One thing we learnt from MCF is that it is totally possible to have an incredibly loving and accepting community made up of children from all sorts of backgrounds, tribes and cultures. This encouraged us, reinforcing that cultural stigma and conflict of opinions around something like periods can be reconciled and put aside if tackled in the right way!
We headed for Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, and began 3 days with an organisation called Simama Na Dada. SND visits urban and rural schools, distributing pads and mentoring the girls. We were absolutely thrown into the deep end when were told that we would be the ones mentoring the girls the next day! We had to quickly familiarise ourselves with the culture and customs of the Maasai people, the tribe from which most of the school girls would be a part of. Common issues involved the expectation of a girl to undergo female genital mutilation, early pregnancy and marriage to an older man. There is another custom, whereby a man has the right to choose a young girl to marry in the future, give her beaded necklaces which is a sign of ownership, earning him the right to have sex with her at any moment he chooses. In many cases, the man will choose not to marry the girl, leaving her “used” and unlikely to find another husband. It was crucial that we convinced these girls of their worth, value and independent power. Being culturally sensitive, we had to reinforce the importance of focusing on school over things like marriage or trying to earn the right to ‘womanhood’ by undergoing female genital mutilation.
Over the three days we reached schools in Kajiado, Narok and within the city of Nairobi. It was such an incredible experience to witness the girl’s joy and laughter as they were given pads, and began to own their potential and worth. In Kajiado we were asked the question “I get really painful cramps on my period, but I must walk 7km to get home after school and if I stop because of the cramps, it might become dark. What should I do?” In Nairobi we were asked “How do I use a pad?” and “What does the pad look like?” It was confronting to know what these girls had to go through and what they hadn’t been told, but it was an absolute privilege to help them understand their bodies and how to look after them.
Words by Isobel Marshall