Menstruation is still widely considered a taboo in many communities, and girls living in poverty often struggle to afford the cost of even essential basics.
Without access to adequate sanitary protection during their period, girls often stay home from school rather than risk embarrassing leaks and other problems caused by using uncomfortable, ineffective and unhygienic rags or other unsuitable material, and the lack of adequate toilet facilities.
As well as causing girls to fall behind with their lessons, this is increasing their risk of sexual abuse and teen pregnancy because men are specifically targeting those who are vulnerable by offering to provide them with menstrual pads in exchange for sex.
In Busia, Western Kenya, 18 year old Lucy is one of numerous school girls who spoke to Equality Now about how they had frequently been approached by local boys and men, with some reporting they have been sexually exploited directly as a result of not having access to sanitary towels.
Their school is doing what it can to provide support, including running a Girls Club which teaches members about important topics like safe relationships, personal hygiene, and girls empowerment.
Here Lucy talks about the problems she faces and how the Girls Club is making a difference:
“I live with my father and mother. I have five brothers and sisters and I am the youngest. My parents are peasant farmers and are employed as labourers so they can earn money for our school fees.
“The level of poverty is very bad. My mother Josephine lives an extremely hard life. She gets sick from all the hard work she has to do and feels stressed because of her situation, she is always sad. She was never able to go to school and cannot read. If she could read and write she would be able to earn a good income so that we could live in better conditions. She struggles a lot so that I can go to school and have a better life.
“My father struggles too and thinks it is important for me to go to school. My father can read and write a bit, he only finished primary school. In the evenings, I read to my parents. I normally read them the Bible and when they don’t understand the scripture or when things are in English I interpret it for them.
“Most of the time I don’t have my basic needs provided for, such as sanitary towels, pants or bra — even soap to clean myself. When I have my menstruation and my parents don’t have money, I have to use rags and cannot come to school. I need to have sanitary towels from morning to evening, and if I don’t change my pad frequently it may cause microorganisms to develop that will make me sick.
“I worry about something happening if I go out that will make me ashamed. I have had blood appear on my skirt and I feel very uncomfortable. Sometimes I get my friends to check if blood has come through, and if it is bad I will continue sitting down.
“Some of the boys outside of school say they will assist me when I am in a helpless position by providing for my basic needs if I agree to be in a relationship with them. Often, they are strangers who come up to me when I am leaving school. Some of them are grown up or might be married and use their riches as an opportunity to confuse young girls.
“At first, they just say some greetings, some pretend they are lost and say they need some assistance, but then eventually they say what they want from you. They tell me they have the solution to all my life problems and try to convince me so I will get confused and like them.
“I feel uncomfortable and refuse their offers because I know the consequences. When you engage in a boy girl relationship at an early age, you may get pregnant. The boy may cheat on you and then you might get diseases. You might be convinced they love you, drop out of school and then your future will be worse than it used to be.
“My teacher Patricia teaches us in Girls Club. She encourages us to continue working hard and have hope in our futures. We have learnt a lot about good relationships and how a people need to be mature, and economically and emotionally stable in order for it to be a success.
“In case of any problems — emotional, academic, psychological — I go to Patricia for advice and she always helps me so much. I worried about my body when I hit adolescence, how to control my feelings without being confused. I spoke to her about my emotions so I wouldn’t get overcome. She told me that I am a very important person and I should value myself so my life can be better.
“If I didn’t have my teacher’s support in Girls Club, I would feel hopeless about life and maybe I would have dropped out of school as I wouldn’t have been able to conquer my problems. Through guidance and counselling she has been able to enlighten me. Patricia advised me that the world is a better place to be if you work hard and succeed. Knowing this helps to keep myself well.”