GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE

Period poverty: Weak link in ending GBV

In Summary
  • Dysmenorrhea or painful periods sometimes associated with back pain, nausea, diarrhoea and headaches impact on women’s and girls’ ability to perform designated duties.
  • This can be misconstrued for indolence or malingering for which they are subjected to punitive actions, including beating.
An illustration of gender based violence
An illustration of gender based violence

The onset of menstruation can undermine girls’ human rights and push them to the vulnerable margins of society. It is not always an exciting affirmation of rich womanhood.

In many places around the world, menstruation is believed to signal that girls are eligible for marriage, or sexual activity, and childbearing which leaves them exposed to a host of violations, including child marriage and sexual violence.

The silence, myths and taboos around the subject of menses obscure the painful experience of women and girls. In 2016, a report funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that only 50 per cent of Kenyan girls felt they could openly discuss menstruation at home.

Aversion and negativity in society degrade and traumatise girls already weighed down by a deeper need to understand their bodies. Last year, a girl was reported to have committed suicide after her teacher made unsavoury comments about her periods.  

Myriad forms of violence 

Period poverty stampedes women and girls from indigent households into transactional sex that compromises their bodily autonomy. ‘Sex for pads’ has been documented widely among adolescent girls and young women from impoverished backgrounds where decent and dignified menstrual hygiene management is not prioritised. Some succumb to early sexual debut and pregnancy to suspend the desperation associated with periods.

The menstruation predicament has been the cause of physical violence against women and girls in communities and households. Dysmenorrhea or painful periods sometimes associated with back pain, nausea, diarrhoea and headaches impact on women’s and girls’ ability to perform designated duties. This can be misconstrued for indolence or malingering for which they are subjected to punitive actions, including beating.

Social and cultural norms linked to women’s menstrual experience lead to economic violence and deprivation. For instance, communities that bar women from participation in livelihood activities including farming – tending crops and grazing livestock – during menses deny them crucial economic opportunities. Some communities believe that crops would wither if cultivated by a woman experiencing the monthly flow.

Demographic surveys in the country have consistently established a link between the incidence of intimate partner violence and low education and economic ability. Women and girls who cannot exit from the paralysing cycle of poverty as a result of low education have higher chances of suffering violence.

Long – term effects of girls dropping out of school because of the shame and stigma associated with periods include increased susceptibility to many forms of violence. In Kenya, one in ten girls misses school due to periods.

Demographic surveys in the country have consistently established a link between the incidence of intimate partner violence and low education and economic ability. Women and girls who cannot exit from the paralysing cycle of poverty as a result of low education have higher chances of suffering violence.

Periods and Pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has compounded inequalities and worsened violence against women and girls. With job losses and cutbacks reported across most sectors of the economy, many women and girls have been left unable to meet their hygiene needs. A gender rapid assessment of the Covid-19 pandemic in Kenya conducted by UNFPA, UN Women, CARE International and Oxfam has revealed that over 90 per cent of women and girls have reported a decrease or no access to menstrual hygiene products.

Stories of period poverty are all across the country, more so amongst adolescent girls and young women. Living in vulnerable communities. Sylvia*18, was in her final year at school. The firstborn in a family of four, she bore the weight of her siblings, all girls. Her mother, unable to afford school, saw her as the only one to get formal education.

She enjoyed going to school, which guaranteed a meal a day, and sanitary products brought to them by well-wishers. Before the pandemic, Sylvia’s mother had relied on laundry work, washing clothes in people’s homes to earn wages. Due to Covid-19, she could no longer work, and with four children in the house daily, the family was in economic distress.

“Our situation was dire,” Sylvia laments, as she narrates how hard the experience has been for them. “It wasn’t my wish, but it was the only option I thought I had. My siblings were looking up to me, and to choose between food and sanitary towels, food came first.”  She said that at times men have taken advantage of their vulnerability to ask for sexual favours – in exchange for money to buy food and sanitary towels. 

Women’s rights are human rights. Their entitlement to dignity and self-esteem should not be eroded because of lack of access to sanitary wear in a civilisation where men and women have landed on the moon.

Karimi,* a mother of three, narrates that life has not been easy since the pandemic. Due to financial constraints, she sought to move in with a man, to cut costs for her and her children.

“I can’t remember the last time my children used sanitary towels. On one occasion, our daughter cut the corner of a mattress to use as a “pad” and after a long day walking from house to look for a day job, I came home to find my child crying in the corner, because my husband had hit her after discovering why our mattress was cut.”

Fund, Respond, Prevent, Collect

Women’s rights are human rights. Their entitlement to dignity and self-esteem should not be eroded because of lack of access to sanitary wear in a civilisation where men and women have landed on the moon. Women’s and girls’ rights to work, education, equal treatment and non-discrimination are imperilled when their menstrual hygiene management needs remain unaddressed.

The Government of Kenya has made laudable progress so far in combating period poverty. The launch of the Menstrual Hygiene Management Policy this year amidst the restraining Covid-19 environment, one of its kind in Africa, is a starting point of hope for women and girls in Kenya.

The State Department for Gender Sanitary Towel Distribution Programme, anchored on amendments to the Basic Education Act 2013 is yet another initiative that has enabled many girls to stay in school, protecting them from a dehumanising narrative of degrading survival and sexual exploitation.

Alleviating period poverty should occupy the mainstream of conversations to fund anti-gender based violence interventions in the country. UNFPA’s efforts to improve access to dignity kits for women, girls and boys in the country can only be sustained through gender-responsive budgeting at the national and county levels.

Prevention of violence against women and girls calls for radical and courageous shifts in social and gender norms. Consistent collection of credible data will invigorate advocacy voices to honour the aspiration of women and girls to live free from period poverty!