Kenyan politician, Gloria Orwoba attended a senate meeting in a suit stained with red dye as part of her campaign for free access to menstrual products. (The Guardian)
  • Gloria Orwoba, a Kenyan politician, is pushing for sanitary towels to be free in that country. She showed up to a parliament meeting wearing a white suit stained with fake menstrual blood.
  • The move was also supposed to draw attention to the discrimination that menstruators face.
  • Kenya scrapped taxes on period products in 2004 and they’ve been free at schools since 2017, but corruption has meant only a small percentage of people reaped the benefits of these policies.

A Kenyan politician has become the subject of a vicious online hate campaign after she protested against period poverty by sitting through a senate meeting in clothing stained with fake menstrual blood.

Senator Gloria Orwoba was asked to leave halfway through the session after her fellow parliamentarians requested the speaker eject her for supposedly violating the house’s “dress code”.

Orwoba, the nominated senate leader, is campaigning for free sanitary towel provision and is planning to introduce a Bill in the coming months.

She says well-intentioned female colleagues rushed to help her “cover up” when she arrived at the parliament buildings in Nairobi in a stained white trouser suit.

“I think for all of them, it was in good faith,” she said. “But I also think it’s because the first thing that we have been taught is that periods are dirty and shouldn’t be seen.”

The incident, which she says she didn’t expect to reach beyond the Senate, prompted debate about period stigma and access to menstrual products. A number of women, as well as rights and menstrual health organisations, rallied behind Orwoba for her “bold” and “powerful advocacy” for girls from disadvantaged backgrounds.

[WATCH] Face your fear: Inside life with a menstrual cup in less than three minutes

One user tweeted: “If this makes you uncomfortable, it’s a mission accomplished. It’s supposed to sting like that until we have free sanitary towels for girls.” The advocacy group Global Citizen Africa also tweeted support, saying: “Breaking the period stigma is crucial to ending period poverty.”

But some labelled her actions “shameful” or dismissed them as “theatrics”. As well as online messages questioning her credentials as a leader, Orwoba was targeted by severe cyberbullying and threats of sexual violence, and said she is thinking about taking a social media break “until temperatures come down”.

More than half of women and girls in Kenya can’t afford pads

Kenya has seen extreme incidents of period shaming. In 2019, a 14-year-old girl killed herself after a teacher reportedly shamed her when she stained her uniform on her first period. Stigma pushes many girls to skip school when menstruating.

Kenya scrapped taxes on period products in 2004 and in 2017 introduced a law requiring the government to provide them free to schoolgirls. However, due to an insufficient budget and corruption in distribution channels, only a small percentage of girls were assisted through the programme.

Orwoba says that while the law exists, budgets and procurement need to be revised to increase local production and meet girls’ needs.

Ministry of health figures from 2020 suggest that only about 65% of women and girls in urban areas, and 46% in rural areas have access to disposable menstrual pads.More than half of women and girls in Kenya cannot afford monthly menstrual products, with almost 20% turning to homemade options such as toilet paper or cloth. Inflation has seen the cost of pads nearly double this year, putting feminine hygiene products further out of reach. A petition calling for lowered prices — launched by Dial a pad, an NGO promoting access to feminine hygiene products in Africa — has more than 4 000 signatures.

Dare to be shameless

Faith Mutindi, the co-founder of Dial a pad, said: “Women are already struggling to get this commodity. Now that the price has doubled, you can imagine what kind of struggles and vices, like transactional sex, it opens these girls up to.”

Orwoba stands by her stunt, saying that to bring change, “it is important to dare to be shameless”. But being on the frontline of the backlash, she said, showed her that there is a lot more to be done to eradicate stigma.

“The biggest impact is that we got men talking about periods — and that breaks cultural barriers to some level,” she said. “Period shaming starts with the man and the boy, because they have been brought up to believe that if a woman happens to have a stain, it’s an appropriate response to laugh at, or castigate her — and then the woman has been taught that they need to go into hiding. That’s the unlearning that we need to do.”

This article was originally published by The Guardian’s global development project part of Guardian News & Media Ltd.

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Caroline Kimeu is the Guardian's east Africa global development correspondent based in Nairobi.