At four in the morning, I folded a piece of cloth cut from my mother’s old leso. Some time earlier, I had hidden the traditional African garment in my mattress so that my mother wouldn’t find it. With unsteady hands, I slipped the piece of cloth into the lining of my underwear; then, I cut another big piece, folded it into a pad, and stuck it in my pocket.
I was nervous. These scraps would act as sanitary towels to ensure that my heavy menstrual flow would not soil my purple skirt and thus spoil my opportunity to attend an important interview. This interview would determine if I could realize my dream of continuing on to secondary education. I wouldn’t skip it due to my menstrual predicament.
In total, I needed 17 hours of protection to cover travel time to and from the interview location, as well as the time it would take to complete my tests.
That morning, my mother was lying in a sick bed, and only my elderly father was available to accompany me. I was only 13 and couldn't tell my 80-year-old dad—who was not lucky enough to have gone to school—that I had my period. In my Kenyan community, speaking about menstruation is taboo.
As I took my seat at the interview venue the interviewer announced, “Start!” Fear of failing and missing out on a four-year high school scholarship gripped me. I was holding my education’s destiny in my hands.
Then, the worst happened.
Drop by drop I felt my menstrual flow begin. I squeezed my thighs to try to stop it while also trying hard to concentrate on the test. The interviewer’s time alerts made me even more nervous, and I found that I could not concentrate at all.
As the interviewer collected the test sheets, I wished the earth would open up and swallow me alive. My heart sank as I watched other candidates leave the room, some happy, some sad, but all eager to meet their parents.
It was different for me. I was numb; I could neither lift a leg nor move a finger. I could feel the blood flowing down my thighs. It went through the rag and pooled on my skirt. I squeezed my legs, sat firmly on the chair, and gripped the desk—but my efforts to stop it were in vain. As it naturally does, my menstrual blood flowed and flowed. Fear got hold of me proper. How would I walk out of the interview room with a soiled skirt?
I heard my dad’s strong, loud voice calling, “Gladys, the test is over and the journey ahead of us is very long. Let us go home!” We still had an 8-hour trip to cover. I slowly turned around and nodded in agreement. I did not tell my dad I had only managed to answer a few questions.
Two months later, I learned I had not received the scholarship, and my desire to gain a high school education would remain just that—a desire. Month after month, I stayed home while other children joined the high schools of their choice.
Then one day, my parents decided enough was enough; they would send their daughter—who was among the top students in the country—to an insufficiently equipped local school. It was a decision that broke their hearts into pieces.
Every month, I peddled a large black bicycle up and down the hills to secondary school, a rag stuck between my thighs. I was going to school again, but the sanitary towel issue was not a thing of the past.
Today, when I speak with girls in my community, I realize that the situation for girls who menstruate hasn’t changed much at all. At a school in Mathare Slum, a young teen leader named Mary recounted a similar story to mine.
“Girls in our school cut pieces of mattress and use them as sanitary towels,” she said. “We see the soiled rags thrown all over the slum and outside our houses. We risk stepping on them as we go to school.” She advised her teachers to prioritize access to sanitary products.
Without access to proper products, for millions of teenaged girls across the world, menstruation brings shame, missed opportunities, missed school days, poor academic performance, low self-esteem, and infections.
According to Femme International, menstruation is the number one reason why girls miss school. This is true in Kenya where KEMRI/CDC estimates that Kenyan schoolgirls may lose as many as 500,000 school days a year because they are unable to cope with their monthly periods at school. In Kenya, the average price of a package of eight sanitary towels costs approximately 50 Kenyan shillings—half of what most unskilled workers in slums and rural areas earn.
In 2015, I started Teen Action Program, an initiative focused on developing teenagers into responsible young leaders who identify challenges in their communities and work to address them.
Teen Action gives girls a platform to understand the problems they face in their lives and communities and helps them realize they can create solutions. By stepping out to speak about a particular issue, the teens begin a journey of becoming change-makers and leaders in their communities.
Mary, who spoke so eloquently about the impact of menstruation on girls’ education in her community, is a Teen Action leader. As the leader of a teens’ group, she organized the donation of a number of sanitary towels to needy girls. Her group also organized a forum at a local church neighboring their school. They invited older women to speak to young girls about menstruation and hygiene. Now, she hopes to train members of Teen Action to make reusable pads to donate and sell at affordable prices to girls in the slum.
Imagine how it would be if we could give more girls a platform to discuss and create solutions to the issue of sanitary towels. Girls would be empowered to speak out about the urgent need to solve the challenge once and for all. Their voices would push reluctant governments to stop imposing tax on menstrual products, declare access to sanitary towels a women’s right, and ensure that all girls in school have access to free sanitary towels.
It’s a world I hope to see in my lifetime: one where no girl misses school because of the “period of shame.”
Gladys Muthara is a contributor from Kenya. This piece was originally published on World Pulse. Sign up to get international stories of women leading social change delivered to your inbox every month here.