BY SAVANNAH MARTINCIC, CONTRIBUTOR
In Kenya, a 14-year-old girl started her period for the first time in the middle of a school day. Later that day, she killed herself.
The Daily Nation, a local newspaper, reported that on Sept. 6 the girl suddenly discovered she had started menstruating for the first time. Caught off guard, she did not have a pad, causing her to eventually bleed through her uniform. The student’s resulting anxious behavior quickly attracted the attention of her female teacher. However, it was not positive attention she received.
The girl’s mother, Beatrice Koech, told the Nation that the teacher said the girl was “dirty” for soiling her uniform. The teacher then kicked her out of class. Embarrassed, the girl walked home and told her mother about what had happened.
Then, at a nearby water source, she decided to hang herself out of shame.
The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimated that around half of all school-age girls in Kenya do not have access to sanitary pads. Due to this, girls will frequently miss days of school. According to the ZanaAfrica Foundation, more than one million girls in Kenya miss up to six weeks of school each year because they do not have consistent access to adequate menstrual products.
Uhuru Kenyatta, the president of Kenya, signed into law the Basic Education Amendment Act in 2017, which put the responsibility of providing “free, sufficient and quality sanitary towels” to every school-going girl who has reached puberty, in hopes of reducing the number of girls missing school during their menstrual cycle.
“It shall be the duty of the Cabinet Secretary to provide free, sufficient and quality sanitary towels to every girl child registered and enrolled in a public basic education institution who has reached puberty and provide a safe and environmentally sound mechanism for disposal of the sanitary towels,” states Section 39 of the Basic Education Act.
However, this law is extremely flawed. Many public schools across the Kenya have not received their allocation of sanitary towels. This can cause girls to resort to using materials such as torn pieces of cloth, animal skin, or even leaves — all of which are extremely unhygienic and can cause infections.
The alternative? Staying at home due to a culture that tells them they are unclean or weak, which causes a negative impact on their education and school performance. Some girls even drop out of school completely when they begin getting their periods.
Cultural taboos and what people are calling the “culture of silence” around periods are endangering the health of not only cisgender women and girls worldwide, but also those who are transgender, non-binary, or intersex.
Lack of access to sanitary products is even happening right in America’s own backyard.
For many experiencing homelessness in the U.S., getting a period means choosing between buying sanitary products or food. Menstruating on the street looks like rationing products, infrequently changing pads or tampons, or simply using other things like napkins instead. Sanitary products are also not usually donated to organizations like shelters or food pantries.
“I really wish that people understood that while donating clothes and other hygiene products is needed and greatly appreciated, pads, tampons and [panty] liners are some of the most expensive products women face,” Taylor D., a woman who experienced homelessness, told Teen Vogue in an interview.
A normal biological process for millions of people in the US ends up being one of the most burdensome and most expensive.
As of July 2019, 35 U.S. states still employ the “tampon tax,” which is the sales tax applied to menstrual products like tampons, pads and cups. In the state of California alone, people who menstruate spend $20 million in taxes on menstrual products annually.
These taxes imply that menstrual hygiene is a luxury, rather than a necessity; an inevitable consequence that results from leaving menstruation out of policy conversation.
It is not just about access — or lack thereof — to period products that is concerning, but the entrenched misinformation and narratives surrounding periods. The seemingly eternal idea that menstruation is unclean or impure is at the root of the issue. There is no doubt that these taboos are used as false justification to oppress those who menstruate.
Period stigma around the world, therefore, is a human rights violation. It is isolating, depriving, and further exacerbates negative gender norms, especially in (but not limited to) impoverished countries.
In 2019, it should not be a financial, social or educational burden to have a period. In 2019, a 14-year-old girl should not have to hang herself to avoid period shame. In 2019, adolescence should not be the end of a person’s potential. In 2019, menstruation should be a larger part of the sexual education curriculum and of policy conversations.
“The culture surrounding menstruation must be changed, and it takes both women and men to make that happen,” said Thinx, a period underwear company, in a statement. “It starts with open, honest conversation, and continues with education that empowers women to feel aware of and comfortable with their bodies and flows.”