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Menstrual hygiene: Time to put an end to period poverty

 Margaret Mutune, the Programme Coordinator at Kenya Connect. [File, Standard]

Salome Mueni, a Form Two student in one of the schools in the Mwala area in Machakos County is currently using the reusable sanitary pads given to her for free by Kenya Connect, a non-governmental organisation in the area.

She remembers when she saw the first drops as an indication of the onset of her menstrual period; she was at first ecstatic knowing she had, like some of her friends, entered the journey into womanhood. However, when the excitement faded, she faced the uncertainty of where she would get sanitary pads.

"I knew too well that my mother could not afford to buy those pads. I had seen how much the cost shops and I remembered seeing her one time, hanging some pieces of cloth that she had used and washed. I did not wait to be told what to do," she narrates.

She found a torn but soft 'lesso' that had seen better days from wear. She then cut the lesso into sizeable pieces that she folded and used as her sanitary pads.

What followed was quite embarrassing because, the next day in school, she did not know when to change her pad or where to keep the used piece. She ended up messing up her dress and her teacher asked her to go home and clean up.

She missed classes that day and every other day when she was on her period for fear of messing up her dress again.

Many girls in Kenya can easily relate to Mueni's story. Her situation is no different for so many who cannot afford to buy disposable sanitary pads.

According to UNICEF, every month, 1.8 billion people across the world menstruate and millions of those people are unable to manage their menstrual cycle in a dignified and healthy manner.

A survey done by Proctor and Gamble and Heart Education found that 42 per cent of Kenyan school girls have never used sanitary pads and instead use alternatives such as rags, blankets, pieces of mattress, tissue paper, and cotton wool.

Roughly one million school-going girls miss an average of four days each month during their period because they do not have access to proper feminine hygiene products.

To change these numbers, many organisations have been focusing on making and providing reusable sanitary pads to these girls to keep them in school.

One such organisation is Kenya Connect based in Wamunyu in Mwala Constituency saw the need after a survey that they conducted in 16 schools where they had been doing other projects and found that many girls missed school during that time of the month.

James Musyoka, the Executive Director and Co-founder at Kenya Connect said they began by training at least ten women who would sew a reusable pad, then provided them with the sewing machines and the materials for making the pads.

"We buy the pads from the women at Sh650 per piece but then supply them to the schools free of charge."

Further, he explained that this was not just a way of keeping the girls at school but buying from the local women was a way of empowering them and making them self-sufficient because in one year, at 25 per cent of the cost of the pad, they managed to offset the purchase of the machine and make an income from it.

One such woman is Peninnah Katunge Mbuvi, a person with a disability who benefitted from the training and has been selling at least 50 pieces of pads each day.

"Since 2010 when I joined the Kenya Connect group of women, I have benefitted from the sale of reusable sanitary pads because I have been able to use the proceeds to pay for school fees for my children," she said, "I joined because I wanted to be self-sufficient and I did not like the idea where people would pity me because I have a disability, and now I can take care of my family just like everybody else."

According to Margaret Mutune the Programme Coordinator at Kenya Connect, the reusable sanitary kit has liners and a shield bag which is made of polyurethane laminate fabric (PUL). The fabric is waterproof as well as breathable which means it will keep moisture from passing through and yet heat is able to escape and it can conceal odours and leakage.

"We don't just give them the pads, but we educate them on menstrual hygiene, how to take care of themselves during that time, and how to wash the pads."

The girls can use at least three liners in a day, and use the kit for a year after which it is discarded and a new one is given.

She explains that some girls would engage in early sexual relationships to get money to buy sanitary pads, but with the reusable ones which are given for free, that has stopped, "they also don't miss classes and their grades have improved," she adds.

Many organisations charged with promoting menstrual hygiene and alleviating period poverty have taken to distributing reusable pads because they are a sustainable solution.

Bernadette Wavinya a women's rights activist in Machakos says that although the government has been giving schools sanitary pads for the girls, they have not been enough as many girls have missed out.

She says that although the reusable ones have come to fill in the gaps, the downside is when they are used by girls from drylands where water is scarce.

"This may increase cases of infections because the little water that is available may not be adequate to do a thorough cleaning of those pads, but at the same time those pads are better than the old rags from old clothes that have been used," she says.

According to Diana Njuguna, Head of Programmes at Akili Dada, the water shortage situation in many areas is one of the biggest hurdles in the successful use of reusable pads.

"I urge the government to try and provide water in such areas to help the girls during their menstrual period and to maintain hygiene," she says.

She explains that organisations that distribute menstrual hygiene products should also teach girls about menstrual hygiene during distribution.

Women and girls are advised to wash their hands before and after using their menstrual products, discard used disposable menstrual products properly, and change the sanitary pads every few hours as well as keep their genital area clean to promote menstrual hygiene.

Njuguna also says that there are plans to create a menstrual bank for sanitary towels in the country for sustainability, a point well backed by Wavinya who says that the national and county governments should partner and conduct home-wealth ranking to see which homes deserve to be given the sanitary pads.

"This is because if they are given to all, even those that can afford them will receive the pads, putting those from poor backgrounds at a disadvantage," she says.

She, therefore, urges the government to give a higher budget for sanitary pads, especially for those in dry areas.

This year's theme for menstrual health is making menstruation a normal fact of life by 2030 to build a world where no one is held back because they menstruate.

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