The Pad Problem —menstruation in rural Kenya; personal experience, upcoming policy changes, and potential pitfalls

I recently was out in the field, overseeing a pilot of a presentation to a classroom chalk full of parents and grandparents when suddenly…. Whooooosh! My period arrived. Holy shit, the vagina heavens just opened, my underwear is becoming heavy with blood, and I’m in the middle of a rural village in Kenya. The closest chemists (pharmacy) where I might be able to find a pad is probably 10 kilometers away. I’m in the middle of a conversation with a staff member, and I’m worried that when I turn and walk away, she is going to see a blood stain on the back of my skirt. I excuse myself, back/waddle out of the classroom, trying to squeeze my Kegel muscles together and keep the fabric of my skirt away from the areas that feel most moist. I walk outside, see the loo across the football field, and try to get there as fast as possible without drawing attention. Getting close, I rip open the top of my backpack, praying for something toilet-paper like that may help me out… there is no chance I carried a pad because I cleaned my backpack out after a recent trip to Rwanda and just repacked it this morning with my computer, some snacks, and water. A gift from the period gods, I find a crumpled old napkin and a book — deciding that ripping out the dust pages at the back is the second option, I try to get things under control with the single, 1-ply napkin.

Walking into the pit-latrine (mud floors, concrete walls, and at least one very large spider to make an already hectic situation more nerve wracking), I yank up my ankle length skirt and yank down my undies to find a mess. You know when you strain cheese through cheese cloth, and there is a layer of moisture using surface tension to cling to the edge but is getting more and more unstable as the liquid builds? My underwear. I have one napkin, too much blood, and a big problem, because I have to walk back into that school as the team lead in front of 100 adults and there is little chance that this little napkin can clean up the mess. What do I do? There are some leaves on the floor… there is some dirt outside… Fuck. As I sat crouched in that latrine, and in that moment I understood what it was like to not have a pad, really need a pad, and not be able to access anything like a pad. I fashion a mini dam with the teeny napkin, wipe as much blood as I could onto my thighs hoping that distribution would result in less visible spotting. Exiting the latrine, I realized there was no water available to wash my hands, and had to resort to using spit to wash the blood off my fingers and nails. I cleaned my hands the best I could, and proceed with fear back to the training.

Periods at school present a large problem across the world, but particularly in rural Kenya. Multiple studies and articles talk have reported that many school-aged girls have limited or no access to formal menstruation sanitary resources, toilets or water to wash their hands. I’ve heard stories from practitioners and women of girls sticking twigs, dirt, dirty rags, newspaper and cotton up their vaginas in an effort to absorb the flow of blood that is coming down. Most of these options are highly unsanitary, and result in infection. In some cases, the infection turns into long-term infertility problems. The cultural shame of the period is fierce, and prohibits discussion of this issue between girls and their caregivers. While there have been several sustainable solutions tried out in Kenya such as menstrual cups and reusable sanitary napkins, there are major barriers to proper sanitation of these solutions, such as the inability to boil the menstrual cup using any household pots (that are used for cooking), or laying the reusable napkins out to try in the direct sunlight, as period blood shouldn’t be seen. However, there may be some good news on the way — recently, the Kenyan government announced that it was expanding its existing school pad distribution efforts to cover all girls. This is a step in the right direction because there if everyone is receiving pads, there is less incentive to misdirect distribution within schools (even if girls aren’t considered a member of the ‘poorest’ families, many families do not prioritize buying menstrual pads given other needs). With the right oversight of distribution, this could be a very proactive and positive step forward to combatting girls missing school over natural monthly menstruation. However, without proper policies and regulations, these pads may not make it to their intended recipients.