When Justina (not her real name) experienced her first-period cycle, she was so terrified.
Scared, she stuffed mattress cuts inside herself to try to stem the bleeding.
Justina is a 15-year-old learner at Kugisingisi Primary school in Kuria west, Migori County.
She was too frightened to tell her parents what was happening to her, as such conversations are kept discrete in her community. She kept quiet.
Among the Kuria community, where she comes from, open discussions about sexual reproductive health which incorporate menstruation is prohibited.
“At home, it is unthinkable for one to talk about periods. Even my mum will shut you up if you ask questions about it, so I had to suffer in silence because I did not know who to tell,” she narrates.
Her fears were made worse by the thought of being ridiculed by her classmates while at school, should the blood leak.
The same was experienced by Bridgit (not her real name), a 17year old girl from Nyatike in Migori County, who narrates how her first menstrual period was filled with mixed reactions.
Her menses knocked during the December holidays. She woke up with cramp pain in her lower abdomen.
At home, it is unthinkable for one to talk about periods. Even my mum will shut you up if you ask questions about it, so I had to suffer in silence because I did not know who to tellJustina
“One morning I woke up with much pain in my lower abdomen. Generally, I was feeling very uncomfortable.”
“Upon telling my mother, she rubbished me off that I had eaten too much the previous night,” narrates Bridgit.
Noticing blood pigments on her inner clothing is something she said left her with a huge shock as she previously heard that blood stains only come out of those who have procured abortion.
She could not understand the phenomenon.
This was an indication that she believed in the misconception that girls are no longer virgins immediately after they start menstruating.
She was also scared to show her mother the blood pigments as her mother would beat her for having had premature sex.
The ordeal faced by Justina and Bridgit is a fair share of what many young girls undergo, especially during their first menstrual periods.
These convictions only fuel girls’ feelings of shame and embarrassment, sometimes forcing them to drop out of school or disappear from home where they feel unwanted.
Menstruation is still a taboo topic, one masked in many myths and misconceptions, especially for those living in poverty and culturally deeply rooted communities.
In Kenya, menstruation is rarely discussed in families, and many girls reported feeling like they could not openly discuss menstruation at home because ‘it is too private to even share with their mother.’
The prevalence of this view surrounding menstruation was shown by a 2015 Kenyan national survey, which found that less than 50 per cent of parents discuss sex-related topics with their children, including menstruation.
The findings suggest that there is a lack of discussion surrounding menstruation which limits girls’ understanding and comfort surrounding periods, even in private settings.
These perceptions and poor communication can create a cycle of inadequate support because, if Kenyan girls have limited discussions on menstruation with their mothers, they are more likely to have a limited discussion of menstruation with their future children.
This belief system is passed down from one generation to the next and the socio-cultural context preserves an environment in which menstruation remains taboo to discuss with parents.
Additionally, the lack of menstrual health education in schools is another large contributor to the prevalence of menstrual myths in Kenya.
In 2013, the Kenyan government committed to scaling up comprehensive rights-based sexuality education beginning in primary school
As of 2015, three-quarters of schools covered all topics that constitute a comprehensive curriculum, but only two per cent of students reported learning all the topics. More significantly, menstrual health is not included in this curriculum.
In 2017 as many as 85 per cent of schools required teachers to have sexual education training, but 68 per cent of those teachers reported feeling that they needed more training.
Moreover, of those teachers trained, only 36 per cent were trained on all topics that constitute a comprehensive curriculum.
Nearly half of the teachers studied, reported feeling unprepared or uncomfortable answering students’ questions on sexual education.
Other studies found that teachers will sometimes wander from the official curriculum to provide their point of view or skip over parts of sexual education because the students are tested on other mandatory subjects and not sexual education.
With a third of the students reporting that they did not receive sexual health education from their parents in a study in 2017, it suggests that if these girls do not receive menstrual education in primary school, they may not receive it at all.
To give these girls safe spaces where they can speak freely about their menstrual issues and menstrual education, Tucheze Mtaani, a Community-Based Organisation (CBO) in Migori County, is providing sexual reproductive health education support to young school girls.
The organisation targets young school girls from Migori’s three sub-counties that is Nyatike, Suna west and Kuria west.
These sub-counties are inhabited by communities affected by drought-related hardships like in Nyatike and parts of Suna west.
The same applies to Kuria West and East, where the community highly uphold retrogressive cultural practices that are harmful to girls.
Loosely translated as ‘let’s engage the community’, Tucheze Mtaani CBO has embarked on busting period myths and accelerating menstrual hygiene education in schools in these regions.
According to Mercy Ravoga, the Chief Executive Officer of the organisation, lack of menstrual information has caused havoc among young girls in remote rural areas.
The outcomes have greatly affected girls’ performances and teacher-student relationships and it has also led to increased school dropouts.
Ms Ravoga said that a big gap in the communities where menstrual hygiene and process are not discussed openly is evident, such that young girls are exposed to misguidance, while others suffer from stigma due to ignorance.
She said that they enlighten young adolescents on what to expect when periods approach and how to manage them without feeling less of themselves.
The program not only educates these young girls about their menstrual health but also offers mentorships and counseling to the already tormented adolescents and teenagers.
“We conduct school mentorship programs that sensitize girls on sexual reproductive and menstrual health.
We also offer counseling sessions to troubled girls together with sanitary pads to these girls,” said Ms Ravoga.
To identify the most deserving school to get the services, a workable practice was required.
Ms Ravoga said they had to rely on the available menstrual data from the Ministry of Education, as they did not have enough resources to conduct a fresh survey.
According to the Ministry of Education, girls from poor families miss 20 per cent of school days in a year due to a lack of sanitary products.
The data indicated that a girl in primary school between classes six and eight loses close to 18 weeks out of 108 weeks while those in high school can lose almost 24 weeks out of 144 weeks of learning.
To achieve this, they conducted a mapping of the most affected schools with girls’ absenteeism in the three sub-counties, Menstrual Health Management (MHM) knowledge levels in schools, and requests from the teachers and principals.
Working through its team, they adopted the Ministry of Education’s MHM and pads distribution program in schools to ensure that deserving girls got support.
This is in addition to providing free menstrual health education.
“We started by mapping schools in remote and hardship areas where we believe there is a high need for menstrual health products based on the data we had,” she stated.
She added that the findings advised the program on where to start and how much support is needed to help with resource mobilization.
Since we started our activities, we have been forced to limit ourselves to the initial three schools per sub-county due to limited resourcesMs Ravoga
There were over 1000 girls in the mapped schools who needed menstrual support, but they are working with a total of nine schools distributed across the three sub-counties, which were adversely affected.
Among the schools under the program included both Kugisingisi Primary and Kugisingisi Secondary schools in Kuria West, Bware Primary and Bware secondary schools and Winjo Primary and secondary schools in Uriri.
In addition, Kubweye in Kuria West, Uriri and Modi primary schools in Uriri and Nyatike Sub Counties respectively were also included in the sanitation program.
Within the first two-week period, for the past two years, since they started the program, they have managed to reach out to 900 girls which are approximately a hundred girls per school.
Ms Ravoga says that they only manage to visit schools on a termly basis since their resources cannot fully meet the demand.
This is only done in the first two opening weeks when learners are from home.
Although, according to the CEO, they are pushing to form school-based clubs that will enable learners to meet weekly.
“Since we started our activities, we have been forced to limit ourselves to the initial three schools per sub-county due to limited resources.
But we have never missed any planned session because we feel the need,” she explained.
All the sessions are designed and conducted in one full day. This gives them enough time to interact freely with learners.
Learning and mentorship process
During the whole day session, learners are involved in various games that are aimed at breaking the deadlock, afterwards they will feel free to express themselves.
Additionally, they also engage them in competitions such as tag of war, reading contests, poetry, short races and modelling among others, that are accompanied by gifts and presents.
“Before we start our sessions, we engage learners in a lot of activities that are aimed at building their confidence and gaining their trust to speak freely.
Through such activities, we realize it is easier for them to remember what we teach them,” said Ms Ravoga
Together, in a team of seven members from different professional backgrounds, they resource mobilize from their own pockets and well-wishers to help young girls realize their dreams in education and also coexist freely.
Out of the 900 girls under the program, 51 per cent which equates to 460 needed full support with sanitary pads.
This shaped the mode of pad distribution in schools as some girls revealed that they can be partly supported by their parents.
“So far we have ensured that in the nine program-supported schools, the girls do not miss school due to lack of sanitary towels.
This is through the provision of two pads per month to every girl in the school. The pads are complementing what the government and the MoE have supported the schools with,” said the CEO.
Through the Organization’s program, every school has a sanitation bank where students can pick up pads and use them when an emergency occurs while in school.
The sanitation banks are storage boxes where in each school they are filled with pads for emergency cases.
The banks are filled every term and put under the custody of the champions and with the help of sanitation teachers.
On a termly basis, every school receives a total of 600 pads in their sanitation banks. However, she says the number will be increased to 1000 pads per school.
The pads donation which started in the year 2021 has continued for two years consecutively and now entering its third year in 2023.
Additionally, they have managed to incorporate other CBOs within Migori that do the same charity initiatives aimed at uplifting the community and especially women and the vulnerable.
However, the success of their programs and their sustainability heavily rely on the program’s champions.
The champions are a set of girls who are outstanding among other learners and form a critical part of the program.
Ms Ravoga said they wanted the learner to be part of the program and hence their inclusion was very critical for the success and adoption of the training.
Their selection is done through a voting exercise conducted by their fellow learners. Every school has two champions who are girls
My sister told me about periods before I had my first experience. My biggest nightmare was getting pads, which now through Tucheze Mtaani school program, we have a sanitary bank in the schoolRose
For one to be voted a champion, first they have to be the most hygienic girl in the school, and have unmatched confidence and assertiveness, since they are poised to spearhead the school’s sanitation project and also be a role model to others.
Also, senior students are preferred for this role as they can give guidance and be of moral support to the junior ones.
Rose (not her real name), a class seven pupil at Winjo Primary School in Nyatike is one of the champions who spearheads the sanitation programs in her school.
However, she narrates that she never had challenges with her first cycle but maintaining cleanliness was her biggest worry as she could not afford sanitary towels.
“My sister told me about periods before I had my first experience. My biggest nightmare was getting pads, which now through Tucheze Mtaani school program, we have a sanitary bank in the school,” narrates Rose.
It is the role of the champions to help other girls access these menstrual products as some would not want to be seen picking pads.
Rose says that her main role is to assist those who are scared to ask for pads from the teacher’s office.
She also reports the worst cases of girls who cannot access pads completely at home to the educators, so that they get full support.
Her roles are similar to the ones performed by Mary (not her real name), another champion from Bware Primary school in Uriri.
“Sometimes during games time, other students run to me and say someone is hiding in the girls’ latrine.
I have to rush there and when I introduce myself they open the door and tell me they are bleeding,” says Mary.
Before Tucheze Mtaani came to our school, I was among the girls with challenges of getting PADS. Boys used to laugh at me when they saw blood in my uniform and I used to hide behind latrinesMary
She says that before she became a champion, she was also a victim of mockery on the day her periods first came and her mother had no money for pads, as the previous day they did not even have food in the house.
“Before Tucheze Mtaani came to our school, I was among the girls with challenges of getting pads.
Boys used to laugh at me when they saw blood in my uniform and I used to hide behind latrines,” she said.
She said that through training and the sensitization talks, she cannot laugh at someone bleeding and feel bad when others get ridiculed.
She said the program has saved her from shame and she has high hopes for her education.
No more period shame
Apart from the champions, several girls have also come out of their biggest nightmares and the stigma, the period ignorance subjected them to.
Francisca (not her real name), a 14-year-old from Nyabisawa Primary school, says that before Tucheze Mtaani intervened, she feared her experience with menstruation would have been of shame and seclusion.
Her mind had not processed just how to go about it, she felt scared and embarrassed for the worst to come.
Although, the support system in the school and guidance from informed peers made everything easy when her day came.
Additionally, her close friends kept asking her if she had seen any signs because she appeared more mature than others.
“My close friends whom I walk with on our way home always asked me almost every month whether I had begun my flow.
We always refer to what we are taught in school about menstruation,” she said.
The open menstrual discussion in school prepared her psychologically and taught her a few things regarding the subject.
Before we started receiving pads at school, I used to use cloths that I would cut from my old T-shirts to keep the blood from staining my dresses, but they were not enough and blood would still stain my clothesRegina
Fear, shame, cramps and pain, are common reasons to be absent from the classroom.
Students are required to stand up when answering questions that potentially reveal that they are menstruating, 9 per cent of girls report being afraid to stand up.
“Before we started receiving pads at school, I used to use cloths that I would cut from my old T-shirts to keep the blood from staining my dresses, but they were not enough and blood would still stain my clothes,” says Regina (not her real name) from Winjo primary school in Nyatike.
“I was embarrassed to stand in class to answer questions which will make some male teachers angry with me,” she explained further.
She adds that she stays with her grandmother who does not understand what pads are and she has never seen one. This made her life difficult.
“I used to miss one week of school every month because I did not have pads, boys used to laugh at me and I eventually simply stayed home whenever my periods started,” she added.
“Now I don’t get embarrassed when I get my periods because I know how to handle myself and also a cghampion helped me to get pads. I even attend classes during my periods and nobody notices.”
Parents’ unwillingness and lack of knowledge especially on how to handle menstrual topics with their girls have been an issue.
During one of the sessions, Milka (not her real name) from Bware Primary school confessed that her parents are very fierce and cannot be approached for any query about menstruation.
“At home, it is difficult to talk about menstruation and sanitary pads openly because it’s not something my mum will allow,” says Milka.
However, through the champions, she says she feels free to express herself about her menstruation challenges. She adds that she views them as her elder sisters.
“Since they started to talk to us about periods, I feel free and safe because I had no one to talk to. My mum is strict and ever busy,” said Milka.
She says she will help her younger sister because she now understands the whole process.
Change of perception
Previously, teachers would punish some sudden unbecoming behaviours of students, not knowing that the root cause of the behaviours was sometimes menstruation.
To address this, teachers have been mentored on how to spot a girl with a challenge based on their behaviours during those times.
Some teachers confess to sending girls home to get assistance from their parents or guardians.
“Due to tough economic challenges here at school, we sometimes asked them to go home and take care of themselves, since we don’t have any facilities or pads in the school,” says one school female teacher from Nyatike.
“Little did we know the situation at home is even far worse than here at school. Through the program, we now understand our girls better.
The sanitation banks also have been life savers as we do not have to send them home anymore.”
Despite the success, the sustainability of the menstrual products is reliant on resources which Ms Ravoga says are inadequate.
“We are two years old into this project and resources are a bit of a challenge. We rely on well-wishers and donations from our pockets.
We are also few as we have to balance our jobs -to keep us afloat,” she outlined.
She decried that the menstrual products donation project might cease to exist as the organisation has no clear stream of income or a reliable donor.
“The pads distributed per school are dependent upon the number available within our store and the resources available to acquire more pads.
As an organization, we do not have donors supporting the program hence we can’t promise the consistency of pad distribution,” she said.
Noting that without information, even menstrual products like pads are of no use to their users, Tucheze mtaani is heavily investing in passing factual menstrual information that is critical in the life of first-time menstruators.
She decries that without goodwill from the parents and their willingness to let their girls learn and share knowledge, most girls will still undergo worse scenarios of menstruation which have solutions.