Featured Storyteller

KENYA: Rags to Pads

Gladys Muthara
Posted May 5, 2016 from Kenya

Her period almost ended her education. Today Gladys Muthara equips teen girls in Kenya with knowledge and confidence so menstruation won't ever stop them from achieving their potential.

“For millions of teenaged girls across the world, menstruation brings shame, missed opportunities, missed school days, poor academic performance, low self-esteem, and infections.

At four in the morning, I folded a piece of cloth cut from my mother’s oldleso. 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-olddad—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 riskstepping 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 changemakers 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”.

Comments 32

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Julie Collura
May 06, 2016
May 06, 2016

Dear Gladys,

Thank you for sharing your story and shedding more light on one of the biggest barriers girls face in attaining an education. Thank you, also, for empowering young women by giving them a platform to share their stories and further empower each other.

In solidarity,

Julie

Gladys Muthara
May 31, 2016
May 31, 2016

Thank you Julie for your kind words. Together in solidarity!

Imelda kalaki
May 07, 2016
May 07, 2016

Good job

Gladys Muthara
May 31, 2016
May 31, 2016

Thank you Imelda.

Nusrat Ara
May 10, 2016
May 10, 2016

Thanks Gladys for sharing such an important isssue. 

Gladys Muthara
May 31, 2016
May 31, 2016

Thank you Nusrat. Best wishes to you too!

April_rain
May 10, 2016
May 10, 2016

Dear Gladys,

Thank you so much for sharing your story and shedding light on one of the challenges girls face.

Teen action is a laudable project and I wish you all the best and hope that more people rise up to support this initiative.

Best wishes,

April_rain.

Gladys Muthara
May 31, 2016
May 31, 2016

Thank you April, I really appreciate your kind words. Teen Action is embarking on helping end violence against women and girls in Kenya, with 1000 teens in Kenya taking the lead. The project is called Teens Weave Stars Campaign, and you are welcome to support us by weaving your own star to light up the darkness of violence.

Thank you!

Okuman16
May 12, 2016
May 12, 2016

Gladys more grace to your elbow in everything you do keep God first and there will be no obstacles. i believe in your work keep it up and the Kenyan girls will be what you want best wishes

Gladys Muthara
May 31, 2016
May 31, 2016

Thank you Okuman16 for your very kind words! Blessings to you.

Marie-Claire Kuja
May 15, 2016
May 15, 2016

I see you Gla. Hand claps. You' make so proud. More grace dear. Kuja.

Gladys Muthara
May 31, 2016
May 31, 2016

Thank you dear Kuja! More grace to you too.

Adahmbah
May 16, 2016
May 16, 2016

Kudos Gladys,

Thanks for sharing and Keep the spirit

Adah

Gladys Muthara
May 31, 2016
May 31, 2016

Thank you Adahmbah. Blessings

Faith madiga
May 17, 2016
May 17, 2016

wow.......this the best invention .welcome to matete subcounty in kakamega Kenya n let's empower our girls

Gladys Muthara
May 31, 2016
May 31, 2016

Thank you Faith! I look forward to meeting you.

FREDRICAHBITA
May 19, 2016
May 19, 2016

An applaud dear,

Our girls are to be more comfortable with settled minds in learning environment.

Gladys Muthara
Jun 14, 2016
Jun 14, 2016

Thank you Fredricahbita,

Very well said!

chimdirimebere
May 19, 2016
May 19, 2016

Dear Gladys, I have always known that girls and women have the solution to girls and women's problems.  Thank you for being so courageous.

Yours in this struggle,

Harriet

Gladys Muthara
Jun 14, 2016
Jun 14, 2016

Very well said Harriett, Women have been through it all, therefore they are in the best position of creating these solutions. They understand and know where the shoe pinches the most. Yours in this struggle!

Auma
May 22, 2016
May 22, 2016

Gladys, congrats for offering so much to our community! I am glad to have met you along with the World Pulse- Kenya women in Nairobi! I am so proud of you! Asante sana!

I salute you!

Gladys Muthara
Jun 14, 2016
Jun 14, 2016

Thanks Leah,

We only started!...I really hope to meet you again soon. Thank you for every support and encouragement.  

Hamza Abbas
May 29, 2016
May 29, 2016

Thank you very much Gladys for this wonderful write up, i really enjoyed reading it, again thank you for making women empowered.

Cheers!!

Hamza

Gladys Muthara
Jun 14, 2016
Jun 14, 2016

Thank you Hamza for your kind words. Blessings and all the best in your work.

Marne
May 30, 2016
May 30, 2016

Thank you for sharing Gladys!  I look forward to hearing more about Teen Action Program, especially understanding the needs of your program and more stories as teens become change makers in their communities.  

Regards,

Marne 

Gladys Muthara
Jun 14, 2016
Jun 14, 2016

Thank you Marne.

Our organization is currently implementing the Teens Weave Stars Campaign initiative aimed at helping young people (13-19 yrs old) champion an end to violence against women and girls. Our target is 1000 teens in phase one. We are equipping them with skills and knowledge necessary for them to champion this positive change through writing their stories, poems, and sharing their experiences of violence.

Besides, the teens get to participate in live Radio-discussions about violence and its effects, with the aim of passing across the message to perpetrators of violence, deep in the grassroots and slums.

This initiative entails weaving stars, symbolic of lighting up the darkness of violence in their lives, and they will be displayed at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

Ours is to equip them with skills and guide them into becoming young change agents in their communities.

Our biggest need right now is funds for this and the next project on Digital Empowerment Training.

Ngozi Joy
May 31, 2016
May 31, 2016

Thank you Gladys

Gladys Muthara
Jun 14, 2016
Jun 14, 2016

Thank you Ngozi for reading.

giftone
Jun 08, 2016
Jun 08, 2016

Thanks Gladdy for your compassionate heart towards our young girls. May God bless you and expand your territories.

Gladys Muthara
Jun 14, 2016
Jun 14, 2016

Amen! Thank you Giftone for your kind words. Happy to know you are in Kenya.

Murimi Symoo Mbinga
Mar 06, 2018
Mar 06, 2018

More blessing my one time class mate at Kagio, God bless you abundantly for the bold step

Gladys Muthara
Mar 06, 2018
Mar 06, 2018

Thank you Murimi. You're very supportive and I appreciate your kind words.
Blessings