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Kenyan senator campaigns against stigma around menstruation


NAIROBI, Kenya — The sight of a red bloodstain on Kenyan Senator Gloria Orwoba’s white pantsuit was so startling that a female security guard rushed over to hide it.

It was an accident, Orwoba said. Just before she walked into parliament, she looked down and discovered she had been caught unprepared for her monthly period.

For a moment she considered withdrawing. But then she thought about the influence of the stigma surrounding menstruation on Kenyan women and girls and walked into the building. To those who noticed the stain, she explained that she was making a statement.

It did not take long. Within minutes, colleagues in the senate became so uncomfortable that another female lawmaker requested that the speaker ask Orwoba to leave and change her clothes. Male colleagues agreed, calling the issue “taboo and private,” and Orwoba walked out.

Women make up less than a third of Kenya’s senators: 21 out of 67.

A male colleague accused her of faking her misfortune in parliament, to which she replied in a local media interview that “everyone would rather think it’s a joke because if it’s a joke then it’s acting and that way exists it’s not in the real world. Yet our girls are suffering.”

Whether or not Orwoba’s menstrual stain was an accident or a stunt, the controversy it has generated demonstrates the considerable stigma that surrounds women’s periods in Kenya and in many African countries.

Orwoba has not been silenced. Last month’s incident has sparked much debate in Kenya about “menstrual shaming” of women and the problem of lack of access to sanitary towels for schoolgirls and others in many African countries.

Inspired, some of Orwoba’s friends have even paid for a billboard in the capital Nairobi that shows her in a white T-shirt with the words “I can do bleeding” – a pithy message against menstrual stigma in the largely conservative country.

In an interview with The Associated Press, the effervescent first senator acknowledged that the incident has prompted her to focus on drafting a bill calling on the Kenyan government to provide all schoolgirls and incarcerated women with an annual supply of sanitary napkins.

“For legislators to feel the urgency to pass things into law, they have to be subjected to the advocacy and noise,” she said of her public campaign.

The 36-year-old said she’s never understood why menstruation is talked about as a secret. She recalled being excited as a teenager to finally get her first period after becoming the last of her peers to get the “mark of femininity.”

“Since then I’ve had an open mind about periods,” says Orwoba, who has warned her teenage son never to shame a girl about her period.

Studies have shown that in many African countries, menstruation is the cause of widespread school absenteeism among girls who stay home for fear of staining their uniforms.

In 2019, a schoolgirl in Kenya committed suicide after a teacher called her dirty and kicked her out of class.

One in 10 African schoolgirls misses school during menstruation, according to a UN survey, and many, after falling behind, eventually drop out.

Official efforts and promises to provide sanitary napkins have fallen short. In Kenya, in 2018, the government increased budgetary resources to distribute sanitary towels to schoolgirls, but the amount was halved the following year.

Neighboring Tanzania has removed taxes on sanitary napkins to make them more affordable, but many still consider them too expensive due to high production and import costs.

Now Orwoba is getting calls from organizations that want to make menstrual products accessible to the poor, including a British company that wants to place sanitary napkin dispensers in public toilets. Such condom dispensers have long been common in public toilets across Kenya as part of national campaigns against HIV.

In recent years, Kenya has introduced reusable menstrual products such as washable pads and silicone cups. But the lack of access to water to clean them in some rural communities has kept some users from embracing them.

Virginia Mwongeli, 24, sells menstrual cups in Nairobi and thinks Orwoba’s bold move will end menstrual shame.

“We need to normalize periods,” she said.

The senator’s decision to walk into parliament with stained pants was “totally acceptable because people need to talk openly about menstruation,” says Lorna Mweu, popularly known as Mamake Bobo, who founded Period Party, an organization that organizes an annual event is organizing in Kenya to help end menstruation. stigma.

Orwoba said she longs for the day when accidental menstrual spots are seen as normal, not an embarrassment. Women and girls consume precious pads by wearing them out of precaution for fear, she said: “That’s a whole package you wasted for fear of staining your clothes.”

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