Menstrual Hygiene Management in Kenya

Fiona Rushbrook and Ben Woollan, The Unmentionables' Head of Mission East Africa

Since the start of the year, The Unmentionables has been working in partnership with IsraAid, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), and Transformation Textiles to help vulnerable women and girls living in refugee camps and settlements in Northern Kenya gain the knowledge and tools to safely and consistently manage their monthly periods.

In February, we launched phase one of our project in Kakuma Refugee Camp. We trained Community Educators, who are mostly refugees themselves, to provide education on menstrual hygiene management (MHM) and distribute reusable sanitary kits to over 460 vulnerable women and girls. This included a special distribution on International Women’s Day to 49 teenage mothers in the newly created Kalobeyei Settlement, just up the road from Kakuma.

Kakuma Refugee Camp is located on the outskirts of Kakuma Town, in the arid northwest of Kenya. The camp itself was set up in 1992 following the arrival of refugees from Sudan. However, over the years it has grown to accommodate refugees fleeing conflict in countries like Somalia, South Sudan, DRC, and Burundi. As of January 2018, the camp’s population reached 185,449 and whilst it is at capacity, the new Kalobeyei Settlement is still receiving new arrivals every day. The climate is hot and dry, with temperatures sometimes surpassing 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37°C). Water is scarce but when it rains, roads can be cut off for days and with limited livelihood opportunities or transport, many are trapped in the camp.

Building on the success of our projects in Greece, we have been keen to adapt the model of refugee-led education to the East African context. Given Kakuma’s long history, it was important for us to build on infrastructure, relationships, and projects that have already taken place in the camp. IsraAid and Transformation Textiles, having previously trained a cohort of women as Community Educators, were already specialised in issues of menstrual hygiene management. These ladies are refugees themselves or members of the host Kenyan community, and they all share a passion for providing the women and girls of their community with dignity in menstruation.

To ensure that we targeted the most vulnerable women and girls at our workshops, we worked with organisations who have been long established in the area and have access to large networks of refugees. This included Handicap International, who hosted four workshops reaching women and girls with disabilities and their female carers. We also teamed up with the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and Danish Refugee Council (DRC) who arranged for us to hold workshops at their youth centres in all four Kakuma sectors, as well as the UNHCR, who identified the teenage mothers reached in Kalobeyei. By working with these organisations, we have been able to keep project costs low and ensure that donor dollars are channelled directly toward helping the refugee community.

At the workshops, Community Educators delivered training sessions for up to two hours to women and girls, providing an overview of the biology of menstruation, expelling dangerous myths, and providing advice and guidance on how to stay clean and healthy while on their periods. Many have never covered these subjects in formal education or discussed menstruation with their mothers or families. As a result, their first period often comes as a shock. These sessions help demystify the biology of menstruation, normalise the shared experiences, and confirm that menstruation is perfectly natural, amazing, and should never be considered a barrier to life’s opportunities.

At the end of each session, women and girls were given a reusable sanitary kit, which included underwear, reusable sanitary liners, as well as a bucket and soap to enable them to wash these products once used. This kit can be used for up to three years, at the minimal cost of just replacement soap. Although free disposable sanitary pads are provided in the camps by the UNHCR, these are rationed and rarely meet a full month’s need. Most cannot afford the price of purchasing more from the market and we hear many stories of women resorting to selling their bodies for extra finances.

By providing a reusable product, women and girls will be able to safely, comfortably, and consistently manage their periods. This will reduce embarrassment and shame, the use of unhygienic management practices, and ensure that they are not constrained from accessing education and livelihood opportunities during menstruation.

Post-distribution monitoring for this pilot phase will begin in April, after which we will be looking at expansion opportunities: recruiting more Community Educators, broadening the curriculum to include wider sexual and reproductive health issues, as well as increasing participation to include men and boys!

If you’d like to support us in this work, purchase reusable menstrual hygiene kits for women in Kenya here.

Bianca Settino