By Sandra Onindo

Every month when 16-year old Miriam Nyongesa gets her period, her go-to menstrual product is a piece of mattress. “I have no choice. I come from a poor family and I have six siblings who also need to eat and go to school. Sanitary pads are not on the priority list,” she says.

Nyongesa is among the 13 in 20 Kenyan girls who stay out of school every month due to period poverty- the lack of access to high quality menstrual products. Access to high-quality menstrual hygiene is a challenge particularly for low-income women and girls in the country. This limits their potential and slows their economic and social growth.

Diana Atira explains how girls dealt with their periods during their times (Kakamega county)

With the World Menstrual Hygiene day commemorated annually on May 28th, period poverty remains a menace and is deep rooted, going back a long way, attests 71-year old Diana Atira, a resident of Butere town, Kakamega County.

“Back then in our times, we did not have pads. What we would do during our moon days (menstrual period) was that we would tie a string around our waists and then put an old worn out blanket that went from the crotch all the way to the back. The blanket would then be tacked into the string on both sides and that’s how it stayed in place,” she recalls.

According to a 2016 report by Foundation Strategy Group (FSG), despite the government having repealed added tax on sanitary pads and tampons in 2004, 65% (about 15 million) of Kenyan women and girls are still unable to afford these items.

In addition to tax exemption, the Kenyan government has been setting aside funds to avail free sanitary towels to teenage girls in public primary and secondary schools since 2011. The program which is run by the state department for gender affairs has however, encountered execution challenges including provisions regularly running out.

A look into the country’s situation brings insight into the predicaments teenage girls face when their menses come calling. The shocking reality of adolescents seeking a nine-month relief from menstruation through willingly choosing to get pregnant is disturbing.

Furthermore, the inconsistent sanitary pad supply by the government, coupled with the shutdown of schools in March 2020 as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic led to the discontinuation of pad distribution by the government.

However, for volunteers at Agape, a local non-governmental organization dealing with poverty in Kibera slums, completely depending on government assistance is not an option. Despite the enormous burden of the Corona virus, volunteers are taking time out of their busy schedules to sew and distribute reusable pads to teenage girls in Kibera.

“The natural process of menstruation is still a taboo topic in our society. From religion to tradition, women and girls have been shamed constantly for it and are forced to suffer high levels of stigma. Given parents’ and teachers’ tendency to tiptoe around the subject, many adolescent girls in Kenya have a poor understanding of menstruation and reproductive health,” Nancy Kerubo, a volunteer at Agape says.

“That’s where we come in. Initially, we focused on familiarizing the girls in Kibera with their biology. We were keen to regularly educate them on HIV and other STIs. That was until the pandemic hit, illuminating a bigger problem. The sudden shutdown of schools meant that the girls had lost their supply of sanitary pads from the government, since the supplies only came in while they were in school.”

The initial samples of eco-friendly reusable sanitary pads were first introduced to the slum by the program’s trainers based in Japan. Local volunteers were then taught the skills needed to sew the pads. The idea of washable pads that could be used over and over again was convenient especially for underprivileged girls. The fact that this concept would lessen the environmental and financial impact of menstruation was ideal.

Samples of reusable pads made by the volunteers

“We managed to distribute the reusable pads to adolescent girls in eight primary and secondary schools here in Kibera,” declares Kerubo. “Since schools were closed at the time, we communicated with the teachers who then alerted the girls to go collect the pads at school. The reception was mostly enthusiastic. Parents even started to show interest in the products and I soon started giving samples to friends.”

According to one of the program’s coordinators and volunteers Felistas Kisali, teenage girls were sourced from the slums for training. The program equipped more than 40 underprivileged women and girls with the skills needed to sew the pads.

Women and girls in rural and informal settlements often result to using rags, tissue paper and in extreme cases, cow dung.

According to community development practitioner and founder of Simama na Dada initiative, Sylvia Khasoa Sore, the impact of period poverty on women is not only psychological, but physical and emotional as well. The environment also suffers as plastic is used in the making of conventional pads which are not eco-friendly.

“Along with the women and girls, the environment also suffers, which results in an overall negative impact on the society. While many of these products end up in landfills, others clog sewers or contribute to the staggering amount of plastics in our drainages, rivers, swamps and oceans, ” Sore says.

The average Kenyan woman spends about Ksh100 on sanitary pads each month. Having a zero-waste alternative would save women and girls an upwards of Ksh1,200 a year. Additionally, reusable pads are always on hand and never run out as long as you always have a clean stash to last you a whole cycle.

“Now that I’ve had these reusable pads for a while, I have been able to spend my money on other things that my family needs. Instead of buying the usual pads that you use and throw away, I now spend that money on food and water,” Mercy Nyangweso, a beneficiary of the program and resident of Kibera says.

According to Esther Makhomere, an avid recycling enthusiast, making the switch from conventional disposable pads to reusable ones has brought about pleasant changes to her menstrual cycle.

“I’m not sure how it happened, but ever since I started using them (reusable sanitary pads), my periods are shorter and less painful,” she notes. “Before I started using these pads, I had to have prescription medication to help ease the pain. Now, I can go about my day pain-free,” says Makhomere.

According to volunteers at Agape Hope for Kibera, the skills required to sew reusable pads are extremely easy to learn. In less than a week, Kerubo and 11 other volunteers were qualified enough to sew the pads. She reports that with easily attainable materials and an ordinary sewing machine, anyone can learn the skill.

“The best part is that the materials needed can be easily sourced. We make the pads using cotton as the absorbent, kitenge fabric (African wax prints) or fleece for the top layer and then some kind of nylon paper brought in by our donors is put under the pad to prevent leakage. The pads also have wings with buttons on them to keep them steady when they are on,” Kerubo explains. “The pads we make have a lifespan of anywhere between eight months to well over a year. Not to mention, they work just as well as disposable pads, if not better.”

Agape volunteer Nancy Kerubo sewing reusable pads

For 18-year old Keziah Kwamboka, reusable pads could not have come at a better time. “I’m in form four now, so I’m nearly through with Highschool. Honestly, I was worried because after school, I wouldn’t be eligible to get the free pads from the government anymore. But now that I have pads that I can wash and use again, I won’t have to worry about my period even after school,” she says.

Joan Gakuhi, a form two student in Kibera says “on school holidays, I’ve always had to use toilet paper or old pieces of cloth on my period. When schools were closed because of COVID-19, I was sure I’d go back to using tissue again indefinitely, but then the girls in my school were called to collect pads that we were told we could wash. I’m so happy that I won’t have to worry about my periods for a long time.”

Nevertheless, the project’s execution has not been entirely smooth sailing. With skeptics worried about vaginal infections thus criticizing the safety of the products, it was and still is difficult to convince them otherwise. Kerubo says, encountering people who are strongly opposed to change is inevitable.

“People will tell you ‘Better the devil you know than the angel you don’t know’. If adapting to something new feels like walking towards the edge of a cliff blindfolded, then people will not even give it a fighting chance. Heading into the unknown can be terrifying,” she adds.

Taking the leap of faith from conventional disposable pads to reusable pads is also not without its challenges. The daunting reality of the price one has to pay for a cleaner environment and money saved in the long run soon dawned on recipients of the reusable pads.

Kerubo who also uses the products herself says “Whenever I’m out and about on my period, whether running errands or attending functions far away from home, I find it challenging to carry around used pads.

It is a problem especially if the place does not have running water. It would be ideal to put the used pads inside wet bags but that’s an added expense. A good alternative would be plastic bags, but those are banned in Kenya.”

For Nyangweso, a major downside of reusable pads is that it takes time to soak, wash and dry the pads. Washing the pads also creates the discomfort of coming into direct contact with menstrual blood, and is therefore a hassle.

“I love these new reusable pads. However, there still remains the aspect of having to directly deal with blood. If you don’t own a washing machine, hand washing menstrual blood can be nauseating,” she says.

Moreover, Kibera is an informal settlement that is classified as a notoriously water-scarce region. Water in Kibera is not only scant, but it is also highly priced, inconsistent in supply and contaminated. For 20 liters of piped water, one needs to part with five shillings. The supply is, however, not reliable and the taps frequently run dry. Still, for one to comfortably reap the full benefits of reusable pads, water is a non-negotiable necessity.

So far, challenges have been mitigated by educating women and girls on the proper way to care for and preserve the longevity of reusable pads. Education on environmental responsibility and the effects of plastic accumulation in landfills (disposable pads are made up of 90% plastic) have also helped with the uptake of reusable pads.

“Reusable menstrual pads are safer and sustainable for women and girls in rural areas and informal settlements. We, as Simama Na Dada Initiative and other organizations are looking into providing women with reusable sanitary products because they are safe when used and cared for properly.

As with any menstrual hygiene product that sits against the skin, it’s important to use the correct absorbency and change them when they become saturated. If the pad is wet, it can irritate the skin. They need proper washing, drying and caring,” advices Sylvia Sore.

“If not cleaned properly, they can make you more prone to getting a vaginal infection by promoting the growth of bacteria and fungus in your intimate area. We should change these pads at regular intervals of 6 hours (maximum) to avoid irritation and infection due to the wetness of these pads. Women and girls with blood-borne infections like hepatitis C, HIV, etc. need to be extra careful while storing and washing these napkins.”

On analyzing reviews for the reusable pads made by Agape volunteers, Kisali says the level of acceptance has been anything but indifferent. According to her, over 90% of the beneficiaries said they preferred reusable pads and would confidently recommend them to family and friends.

“The government will never end period poverty with the supply of disposable pads. It would be better for the environment and for underprivileged girls and women if they were offered a sustainable solution.

Perhaps what the government should do is train school girls on how to make reusable pads during home science class. With such skills, girls don’t have to ever miss school again because of period poverty,” says Kisali.