In Kenya, one million girls miss school each month because they cannot afford sanitary pads, while some share used ones.


Nairobi, Kenya – For Mary Asigi, a 17-year-old pupil at Damascus primary school in the slums of Dandora on the outskirts of Nairobi, it is usual to miss a few days of school each month because she has no sanitary towels to use when she has her period.

“This affects my performance in class,” she says.

Like many others in her community, Mary’s education has already been disrupted by poverty, which is why she is still at primary school at the age of 17. Many children here drop out of school intermittently, for one or two years at a time, because their families cannot afford to send them. According to UNICEF, more than 1.2 million primary school-age children in Kenya, which has a population of 50 million, do not attend school at all.

Period poverty – being unable to work or attend school because of lack of funds for sanitary products – makes life even harder for girls.

Mary has tried to find solutions, but improvising is not always ideal.

“When I was 15 in class 6, I used to share used pads with fellow classmates before my class teacher warned against it because it was unhygienic,” she says. Sharing pads is particularly dangerous – research shows that some 12 percent of people living in the slums on the outskirts of Nairobi have HIV, compared with about 5 percent of the general population.

Not only that, but girls going to school while they have their periods risk severe teasing and taunting by the boys, Mary explains.

Like the other girls in her community, Mary faces a stark choice – risk her health or risk her education.

dreams of having a career in the Kenyan navy

Mary Asigi, 17, dreams of having a career in the Kenyan navy but worries that missing school when she has her period may stop her achieving that [Lameck Orina/Al Jazeera]

‘The boys mock them’

In an area where a packet of sanitary pads costs $1, and the average family has to manage on less than that per day, poverty means access to sanitary products is near-impossible for the majority of girls, particularly if they have to travel from remote rural areas to buy them in towns.

Mary’s school is in the Korogocho slum in Dandora, which is situated in Nairobi’s Eastlands. Open drains and sewers are dotted about the settlement. Damascus primary school is in a two-storey building with overcrowded classrooms. The ground floor is used by children in the lower primary, while the older students take their classes on the upper floor. Hundreds of pupils play in tight spaces and in the corridors between classrooms.

Regina Nthambi, 16, a student of class 7 at the same school, passes for privileged among her fellow female classmates. Her father, a tailor who barely makes ends meet, tries to buy her sanitary pads every month. When there is no money to buy them he improvises with scraps from discarded pieces of clothing at his shop.

“I share with my friends,” says Regina as she nervously chews on her nails. “They are new and unused. Our teacher warned us against sharing used pads because it’s unhealthy. Some of my classmates get their periods in class and the boys mock them, which is a reason some students do not attend class during this time.”

Lack of sanitary pads has led to an estimated one million girls missing school every month.

Research by Menstrual Hygiene Day, a global advocacy platform for non-profit organisations and government agencies to promote menstrual health, shows that 65 percent of women and girls in Kenya are unable to afford sanitary pads.

According to research by Kenya’s Ministry of Education, girls lose on average four school days every month, which translates to two weeks of learning each term. Over four years of high school, they lose on average 165 learning days.

Failure to change

The Kenyan government has taken steps to counter this problem. Ten years ago, Kenya became the first country in the world to drop taxes on imports of sanitary products for women and girls. The government also committed $3m to help distribute sanitary pads to low-income communities.

This is despite a government-funded programme, which was implemented in April 2018, to distribute 140 million free sanitary pads to 4.2 million girls across the country. The programme, which distributed supplies directly to schools, ran for four months before it fizzled out as supplies ran out and girls started missing classes again.

There were several reasons for the failure of the programme. In some cases, distributors appointed by the government failed to deliver and new contractors had to be found, causing a delay. In others, too few supplies were delivered, meaning that girls received fewer pads than they needed, and some went without any at all. Yet another reason was corruption.

In one case, Nairobi News reported that a supply of 300,000 sanitary towels intended for schools had been stolen and repackaged, with the intention of reselling them.

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