If there’s a time I don’t look forward to as a woman it has to be the menstrual cycles. From the painful menstrual cramps, the extreme moodswings to the feeling of being filthy, it is not a good time unless of course you have been naughty. I first learnt about menses in class 4, when subjects like home science used
to be taught. The first pad I ever saw in my life was Always, this was because at that time not many people had been exposed to those things and pads were just being introduced to Kenya I suppose. The sanitary pads company would organise to hold a day’s seminar on reproductive science including talks on menstrual cycles, STIs and Aids, ABC of sex, abortion and more. By the end of the day they would give every pupil a free pack of Always sanitary pad and leave more in the school office for emergency. They did this not once but for about three to four consecutive years. In those years we looked forward to their coming because of the freebies and a free day off class.
Well despite this presentation nothing ever prepares a girl for her first period and the aftermath because it’s something that we don’t talk about. In Africa and particularly in Kenya this was an unheard of conversation unless your parents were reformed and don’t ask what I mean by that. The only thing you were told once you attain the age of puberty is to keep off boys or get pregnant. Worse still during our days AIDS and STIs were all the rage and the stigma associated with them was really bad.
Josephine must have been the first to be hit by the red ribbon epidemic. I remember her shouting that she was hurt down there. Hmmm…Josephine was luo and a typical one at that so you can imagine the wailing that went on and she was going round the school. She was calmed down by our English teacher if my memory serves me right and later sent home. That’s how we knew she had gotten her menses. I got my menses either in class seven or eight well after most of my classmates.
This is a time that some girls will not concentrate in class while others will have to skip class completely for three reasons, massive cramps, lack of sanitary towels or stigmatization. Cramps is a small and manageable issue since you either get used to it(not really) or use pain killers, whichever means work for you. They also say exercise, hot drinks and hot water bottles can relieve the cramps but I think it is on a case by case basis.
The major challenge was and still remains lack of sanitary towels. First and foremost no one ever teaches you how to use the sanitary towels or tampons they assume that the TV advert is good enough. This means that for the first few years of your menstruating life you will keep having accidents and soiling your clothes. I used to have a very heavy flow and because I didn’t know that I needed to use pads for the heavy flow the pads would leak in less than an hour. Fortunately, and I thank God for this everyday, I went to all-girls schools but I always made sure I had my sweater during these days. The sweater was to be used as a wrap around should an “accident” occur.
How do I say this without it sounding it uncouth and not tainting my parents’ image? I guess there isn’t if am to make my case understood. Coming from a modest family of about six girls at the time and only one income from the head of the house things like pads were luxuries. This meant that my sisters and I had to improvise during periods. I remember our mum would buy us cotton which we would sandwich inside a piece of clothe or lesso. Walking was an uphill task let alone running if a teacher called you to do so because your makeshift pad might just fall off. Even sleeping was a nightmare for fear of soiling your bed. In high school we learned the hard way and we started saving our lunch money so we could afford to buy ourselves pads.
Once the other children knew you had started your menses, you were set apart because you could now get pregnant. Every time you spoke or played with boys you’d be looked at weirdly, like what were you up to. I suppose this is what informed early marriages which is still practiced in rural Kenya. Even teachers would treat you differently loudly calling you a woman even though you knew naught of what this entailed.
By the time I was completing my fourth year my mum had persuaded my dad to include our supplies in his budget since the adverts were more frequent and popular. At least now they had introduced thin pads that didn’t bulge your bootie like a kid wearing diapers.
I am forever grateful to both my primary and secondary school for ensuring that we could at least get a pad to sustain through the day as unhygienic as that is but I can’t help to wonder what other children in other schools are surviving. What about girls in schools that are struggling to provide shelter and pay teachers? This is exactly why I will always stand up to be counted in pad-a-girl initiatives because I know I helped keep a girl in school, I saved a girl’s self esteem, I gave her face to take on the big bad wolf. This is why am calling out to you to support and join hands with organizations like ihopee.org and KWEA in aiding to give our girls some sort of dignity during these seven days every month. You can give in kind by donating sanitary towels both disposable and reusable or you can send funds for the same.