Rebelling Against

Period Shame in Kenya

In Kenya, as in other parts of the world, talking about periods is taboo, due to a wide range of social and cultural customs. These social taboos often stem from a mixture of Islamic and Christian beliefs as well as Kenyan tribal tradition. Seen as polluting and dirty, and coupled with a lack of access to safe menstrual products, having a period negatively impacts educational prospects and young girls’ futures. 

Female circumcision is also common practice, particularly within certain tribes in Kenya. Though it was banned in 2011, in some tribes it is still seen as an important rite of passage for girls to be able to transition into womanhood. Depending on local customs, female circumcision involves removing some or all of the visible features of the vagina: namely the clitoris and the labia. 

But things are beginning to change. Tired of being caught between shame, social stigma and poverty, a new generation of young Kenyan women fight for freedom over their bodies, paving the way for a better future through small, personal rebellions. 

salama

 

Something old, something new…
A small hut in Kiangwe village on the coast of Kenya is home to three generations of women: Salama Shizo, 50; Esha Omar, 33; and Jamhuri Bashir, 13. Between them, they represent a gradual change in perceptions and practices of traditions. Having grown up with strong menstrual taboos, Grandma Salama was not allowed to go near a man when she was on her period.

“It was better in the old days. When we change our traditions, we undermine our culture.”

Salama still lives by the same belief system and raised Esha in the same way. Like her mother, Esha is circumcised. Perhaps surprisingly, circumcision has many strong supporters among the female population of Kenya. To them, it’s a birthright that symbolizes their belonging in the community and their status as adult women in society. This is why women who aren’t circumcised might struggle to find a partner. Even men who marry uncircumcised women experience social rejection. 

eshaomar

However, a shift in the family’s household is clear – Esha’s daughter, Jamhuri, refuses to undergo the procedure, and Esha fully supports her decision to go against this custom. Esha’s defiance against this traditional custom reveals a generational divide that is spreading slowly from the city to the countryside. The shift in attitude towards women’s bodies points towards a small, but significant social change.

Education will set you free
By refusing to accept the circumcision that would mutilate her genitals, Jamhuri has taken a bold step forward and is setting an example for other girls in the village. Education has played a crucial factor in her brave decision. She is the only literate member of the family (something she often brings up whenever she argues with her mother).



However, not all girls are as educated as Jamhuri. As in many other countries, reluctance to talk about menstruation still exists in Kenya. Many are unable to discuss their period with their mothers or other family members. Some experience fear and confusion when they first get their period, bleeding for a reason they cannot understand. Furthermore, due to this lack of education, one in four young women in rural areas do not understand the connection between menstruation and fertility – contributing to a high rate of unplanned teenage pregnancies and limiting their chances of independence and social mobility. 

Behind the politics: a deeper issue
In 2019, a 14-year-old schoolgirl committed suicide after allegedly being embarrassed by her teacher for staining her clothes while on her period. This girl’s death lead to a nationwide debate about how women are frequently exposed to period shaming in their daily lives and the lack of accessibility to safe menstrual products.
This has long been an issue. Women have had to use makeshift solutions. While some share the same pad, others use things such as leaves, rags or cow dung to manage their periods. In an effort to lessen the economic burden felt by women, the Kenyan government removed taxes on period products in 2004. In addition, a program was put in place in 2011 to distribute pads in schools. However, despite the best intentions, supplies and funds often run out. The program also does not reach those who don’t receive any formal education.
The tax repeal was a step in the right direction, but two thirds of menstruating Kenyan women still cannot afford necessary period products on a monthly basis. Around ten percent of girls report having traded sexual favors for pads they could otherwise not afford – highlighting that not everyone can benefit from the program or from the government’s policies.

Making her own rules
Zeituni Ali Mohammed is a young woman living in Faza – a small, busy town. Unlike the community Jamhuri grew up in, Faza is more developed and local customs differ from those in the rural villages – female circumcision is frowned upon here, for instance.

 
kenya_cropped_desk5

“I don’t decorate myself when I have my period, but this is my own choice, not because it’s required of me.”

However, menstrual taboos are still widespread. Some women avoid styling themselves while on their period so that they don’t attract men. Like other women in her community, Zeituni still abides by some menstrual taboos – she does not participate in religious practices when on her period. Outside of that, living in Faza means that she is able to put on make-up and jewellery when she’s not on her period, without being branded as an outcast.

Both Zeituni and Jamhuri are part of a generation of young Kenyan women who are rebelling against period shaming and taking control over their own bodies. This small act of rebellion against age old traditions can cause ripple effects for generations to come. 

However, for many Kenyan schoolgirls today, fear of bleeding through their clothes and risking humiliation means that they miss several weeks of education per year. Some studies suggest that approximately one million girls miss school because they cannot afford sanitary pads, translating into roughly 165 learning days lost over 4 years of high school. This not only further entrenches gender inequality in Kenya, but detrimentally impacts a girl’s education, family life and future career. 

For now, girls like Zeituni and Jamhuri are paving the way for their daughters and granddaughters.

 

Thank you
We would like to thank Umra Omar, Clementine Logan, Joyce Mmaitsi and the rest of the team at Safari Doctors for helping us put the story together and connecting us with the wonderful people we were lucky to interview during our time in Kenya. Also a big thank you to the communities in and around Kiangwe and Faza. Lastly, we’d like to extend our gratitude to Esha, Jamhuri, Salama and Zeituni for opening their homes to us and sharing their personal experiences for this story.

Stay up to date and get more behind-the-scenes pictures, videos and stories.

Be part of the project
Taboo Global Periods is a community-driven project. If you are interested in telling your story, we want to hear from you: show us how periods impact you or those around you.

Text, pictures and videos are welcome.

Rebelling Against Period Shame in Kenya

In Kenya, as in other parts of the world, talking about periods is taboo, due to a wide range of social and cultural customs. These social taboos often stem from a mixture of Islamic and Christian beliefs as well as Kenyan tribal tradition. Seen as polluting and dirty, and coupled with a lack of access to safe menstrual products, having a period negatively impacts educational prospects and young girls’ futures. 

Female circumcision is also common practice, particularly within certain tribes in Kenya. Though it was banned in 2011, in some tribes it is still seen as an important rite of passage for girls to be able to transition into womanhood. Depending on local customs, female circumcision involves removing some or all of the visible features of the vagina: namely the clitoris and the labia. 

But things are beginning to change. Tired of being caught between shame, social stigma and poverty, a new generation of young Kenyan women fight for freedom over their bodies, paving the way for a better future through small, personal rebellions. 

 

Something old,
something new…
A small hut in Kiangwe village on the coast of Kenya is home to three generations of women: Salama Shizo, 50; Esha Omar, 33; and Jamhuri Bashir, 13. Between them, they represent a gradual change in perceptions and practices of traditions. Having grown up with strong menstrual taboos, Grandma Salama was not allowed to go near a man when she was on her period.

salama_mob

“It was better 
in the old days. 
When we change our traditions, we undermine our culture.”

Salama still lives by the same belief system and raised Esha in the same way. Like her mother, Esha is circumcised. Perhaps surprisingly, circumcision has many strong supporters among the female population of Kenya. To them, it’s a birthright that symbolizes their belonging in the community and their status as adult women in society. This is why women who aren’t circumcised might struggle to find a partner. Even men who marry uncircumcised women experience social rejection. 

However, a shift in the family’s household is clear – Esha’s daughter, Jamhuri, refuses to undergo the procedure, and Esha fully supports her decision to go against this custom. Esha’s defiance against this traditional custom reveals a generational divide that is spreading slowly from the city to the countryside. The shift in attitude towards women’s bodies points towards a small, but significant social change.

Education will
set you free

By refusing to accept the circumcision that would mutilate her genitals, Jamhuri has taken a bold step forward and is setting an example for other girls in the village. Education has played a crucial factor in her brave decision. She is the only literate member of the family (something she often brings up whenever she argues with her mother).

kenya_cropped_mob72

However, not all girls are as educated as Jamhuri. As in many other countries, reluctance to talk about menstruation still exists in Kenya. Many are unable to discuss their period with their mothers or other family members. Some experience fear and confusion when they first get their period, bleeding for a reason they cannot understand. Furthermore, due to this lack of education, one in four young women in rural areas do not understand the connection between menstruation and fertility – contributing to a high rate of unplanned teenage pregnancies and limiting their chances of independence and social mobility. 

Behind the politics: a deeper issue
In 2019, a 14-year-old schoolgirl committed suicide after allegedly being embarrassed by her teacher for staining her clothes while on her period. This girl’s death lead to a nationwide debate about how women are frequently exposed to period shaming in their daily lives and the lack of accessibility to safe menstrual products.
This has long been an issue. Women have had to use makeshift solutions. While some share the same pad, others use things such as leaves, rags or cow dung to manage their periods. In an effort to lessen the economic burden felt by women, the Kenyan government removed taxes on period products in 2004. In addition, a program was put in place in 2011 to distribute pads in schools. However, despite the best intentions, supplies and funds often run out. The program also does not reach those who don’t receive any formal education.
The tax repeal was a step in the right direction, but two thirds of menstruating Kenyan women still cannot afford necessary period products on a monthly basis. Around ten percent of girls report having traded sexual favors for pads they could otherwise not afford – highlighting that not everyone can benefit from the program or from the government’s policies.

Making her own rules
Zeituni Ali Mohammed is a young woman living in Faza – a small, busy town. Unlike the community Jamhuri grew up in, Faza is more developed and local customs differ from those in the rural villages – female circumcision is frowned upon here, for instance.

 

“I don’t decorate myself when I have my period, but this is my own choice, not because it’s required of me.”

However, menstrual taboos are still widespread. Some women avoid styling themselves while on their period so that they don’t attract men. Like other women in her community, Zeituni still abides by some menstrual taboos – she does not participate in religious practices when on her period. Outside of that, living in Faza means that she is able to put on make-up and jewellery when she’s not on her period, without being branded as an outcast.

Both Zeituni and Jamhuri are part of a generation of young Kenyan women who are rebelling against period shaming and taking control over their own bodies. This small act of rebellion against age old traditions can cause ripple effects for generations to come. 

However, for many Kenyan schoolgirls today, fear of bleeding through their clothes and risking humiliation means that they miss several weeks of education per year. Some studies suggest that approximately one million girls miss school because they cannot afford sanitary pads, translating into roughly 165 learning days lost over 4 years of high school. This not only further entrenches gender inequality in Kenya, but detrimentally impacts a girl’s education, family life and future career. 

For now, girls like Zeituni and Jamhuri are paving the way for their daughters and granddaughters.

 

Thank you
We would like to thank Umra Omar, Clementine Logan, Joyce Mmaitsi and the rest of the team at Safari Doctors for helping us put the story together and connecting us with the wonderful people we were lucky to interview during our time in Kenya. Also a big thank you to the communities in and around Kiangwe and Faza. Lastly, we’d like to extend our gratitude to Esha, Jamhuri, Salama and Zeituni for opening their homes to us and sharing their personal experiences for this story.

Stay up to date and get more behind-the-scenes pictures, videos and stories.

Be part of the project
Taboo Global Periods is a community-driven project. If you are interested in telling your story, we want to hear from you:
Show us how periods impact you or those around you. 
Text, pictures and videos are welcome.

TABOO
Global Periods.

TABOO – Global Periods is an ongoing project that uncovers the implications of menstruation in the lives of teenagers around the globe.

Menstruation affects half the world’s population, but not in the same ways. From feeling embarrassed or not being able to afford period products to being restricted by religious and social rules.

The impact of any taboo is difficult to understand when viewed from the outside. That is why, this project’s purpose is to explore factors such as economics, power relations, and gender discrimination, that are linked to menstrual taboos and traditions in a wide variety of settings – from the jungles of the Amazon, rural Africa, to central London, and beyond.

The project is initiated by OrganiCup and photographer
Nikolaj Møller.

Design by Spine Studio
Text by Rasmus Folehave, Ida Gjørup, Madalena Limao, Sophie Standen

TABOO – Global Periods is an ongoing project that uncovers the implications of menstruation in the lives of teenagers around 
the globe.

Menstruation affects half the world’s population, but not in the same ways. From feeling embarrassed or not being able to afford period products to being restricted by religious and social rules.

The impact of any taboo is difficult to understand when viewed from the outside. That is why, this project’s purpose is to explore factors such as economics, power relations, and gender discrimination, that are linked to menstrual taboos and traditions in a wide variety of settings – from the jungles of the Amazon, rural Africa, to central London, and beyond.

The project is initiated by OrganiCup and photographer
Nikolaj Møller.

Design by Spine Studio
Text by Rasmus Folehave, Ida Gjørup, Madalena Limao, Sophie Standen