NAIROBI, Kenya – In Nairobi’s Korogocho slums, the sudden closure of schools in March was a double tragedy for 15-year-old Consolata. It meant she would lose out not only on learning, but also on free access to sanitary towels provided under a government scheme to promote menstrual health and hygiene.
As the global lockdown occasioned by COVID-19 has forced people to stay home and live on reduced income, she and millions of girls around the world who live in informal setlements are struggling to access sanitary pads.
The form-two student says she is lucky to get menstrual pads from a local non-governmental organization known as Miss Koch that empowers young girls and women in Korogocho slums.
“We can’t access these (government) pads until we go back to school. Our mum cannot afford to buy us pads and also provide for food. So we mostly depend on what Miss Koch provides,” Consolata said.
“We are five girls in our house, and the pads are usually not enough for all of us. Sometimes we ask our brothers to chip in.”
The Kenyan government, through the State Department for Gender Affairs, runs a programme to provide free sanitary towels to some 3.7 million girls in public primary schools, special primary and secondary schools in the country.
The scheme is essential in a country where over 65% of people who menstruate cannot afford sanitary towels, according to figures cited in the 2016 report Menstrual Health in Kenya, published by non-profit consulting firm FSG.
It also showed that 6 out of 10 girls in Kenya had never heard about menstruation until their first period.
The government-funded sanitary towel program was initiated in 2011 and has so far benefited over 11.2 million girls, mostly in marginalised and slum areas, according to the ministry. The closure of schools in March due to COVID-19 halted pad distribution.
Consolata is one of 600 children in Korogocho slum that benefit from a mentorship programme by Miss Koch that seeks to support child-parent relationships, said Emmie Erondanga, the organization’s executive director.
The NGO also distributes sanitary towels donated by well-wishers to girls through private and apex schools within the informal settlements that do not benefit from the state scheme.
“But with COVID-19, things have changed. Schools closed abruptly and these girls are out of school,” Erondanga said.
“Sometimes we get short of supplies, which means the girls that we have not reached will go for alternative avenues. These could lead to dropping out of school or even teenage pregnancies.”
According to a UNESCO report, Puberty Education & Menstrual Hygiene Management, one in ten girls in sub-Sahara Africa misses school during their periods, losing up to 20 school days a year and increasing their chance of dropping out altogether.
Patricia, one of Consolata’s four sisters, says that while she benefited from the free sanitary pads while in school, it has become harder to afford them after she finished her secondary school education in 2019.
“Sometimes we have to use rags or borrow from friends,” Patricia said.
“Girls here end up having sex with men so that they can get money to buy pads. Some of my friends have even ended up pregnant just because they could not afford pads.”
Inadequate knowledge of sexual and reproductive health among adolescents has meant that over 3.9 million school-going girls aged between 15 and 19 undergo unsafe abortions annually, according to the World Health Organization.
For Consolata and girls and women across the country, there is hope for more robust support as they continue to face their menstrual challenges. On this year’s Menstrual Hygiene Day (28 May), the Government of Kenya launchd a landmark stand-alone policy dedicated to menstrual health and hygiene.
The Menstrual Hygiene policy 2019-30 will create an enabling environment for implementation of menstrual hygiene and management interventions in Kenya. It will also ensure women and girls have access to safe and hygienic products.
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