Menstruation matters. For menstrual hygiene day, we find out why understanding menstruation is so important by visiting a Kenyan school that has got pupils talking about the previously taboo subject.
Stood outside her classroom in the scorching midday sun, Betty Cherotich suddenly becomes very animated when I ask her about menstrual hygiene issues in her community.
“I used to hide my sanitary products from my husband,” she proclaims. “Even I didn’t know the full facts about menstruation.”
One quarter of the world’s population (around 1.5 billion people) menstruates each month for between two and seven days.
Menstruation is a natural part of the reproductive cycle, yet, in large parts of the world, it remains a taboo and is not spoken about.
Not only can this lead to health issues, but it can severely impact upon people’s dignity and freedom of movement.
For example, girls may skip school or in some countries may be forbidden from carrying out certain activities such as cooking.
Telling it straight
Betty is a teacher at Kimangora Primary School in Kenya’s Bomet County. The school has benefited from a joint Kenya Red Cross and British Red Cross project.
For the first time, pupils have access to proper toilets and clean water.
The Red Cross also provided health training to teachers so they could set up a school health club where children could learn about health issues.
The teachers requested additional support to discuss menstrual hygiene, as it was a big problem for their pupils and they were unsure how to tackle it.
“After the training I just put everything on the table and told my husband what I had learned,” Betty tells me, a wide and proud smile etched across her face.
“I told him: ‘These are the things that we are supposed to use. This is how we are supposed to use them.’
“He was asking me: ‘How is this one used? What do you do with that?’ I just told him everything.”
Tackling the taboo
Confronting your husband with the facts is one thing; getting children to engage with menstruation is quite another.
“Our pupils didn’t want to talk about menstruation at first,” explains Betty, noting how it is a taboo in this part of rural Kenya.
“They would hide their faces and they used to skip the class. We told them that menstruation is something natural that happens to each and every girl, and that it is not supposed to be hidden.
“Slowly the pupils became less shy and soon they wanted to know everything. We told them about what sanitary products are available and how they are supposed to use them.”
The school used to have just two toilets for staff and pupils. Small, crooked structures made from corrugated iron, they were cramped and very unhygienic.
Pupils preferred to defecate outside rather than use the toilet. For girls, a lack of decent toilets or sanitary products can result in bloodstained clothes and embarrassment during their period.
Rather than risk embarrassment, girls would miss school, which affected their education and the school’s performance.
“Before we would find that some girls would be absent at a certain time every month,” explains Betty. “But since we got these new facilities, absenteeism among girls is down.”
What are we learning?
The Red Cross has been researching menstrual hygiene in refugee camps in East Africa.
We want to improve how we address menstrual hygiene issues following a disaster.
As part of the research, we trialled new menstrual hygiene kits with disposable or reusable sanitary pads, and other necessities such as underwear, soap, bags and buckets.
“We give out sanitary products to women in the wake of emergencies, but we rarely think through the practicalities in a comprehensive way,” said Claire Grisaffi, a British Red Cross sanitation expert.
“This research addressed issues such as the number of sanitary pads a woman needs, how they can dispose of them or reuse them, and the importance of considering local practices.
“The trial kits proved to be a success and will now be included in future emergency aid supplies.
“Most importantly, however, the research developed guidance to help our field staff talk about menstrual hygiene issues in a way that takes into consideration local preferences and taboos.
“Before the trial a large percentage of women – more than 30 per cent – said they were unable to move freely in the local community or their home during their period. This more than halved following the trial.”
- The water and sanitation project in Kenya has been supported by funds raised through our Clean Start Appeal. Find out more about how your donations are changing lives in Kenya.
All images ©BritishRedCross/RiccardoGangale