Kenyan senator and period poverty activist Gloria Orwoba: ‘Some girls exchange sex for pads’

The lawmaker was asked to leave Parliament in February after arriving with blood-stained pants, in a country where 65% of women cannot afford menstrual products

Gloria Orwoba Kenia Period
Kenyan senator and period poverty activist Gloria Orwoba, pictured on August 31 at her pad donation center in Nairobi.Fototala king Massassy
Raquel Seco

When she got out of the car, dressed in a white suit, Gloria Orwoba immediately realized that she was stained with blood. It was February 2023 and she had just arrived in Kenya’s Parliament, where she has served as a senator for the ruling United Democratic Alliance (UDA) since last year. Her first impulse was to turn around and go home to change. Then she changed her mind: after all, she had been fighting for years against period poverty, the inability to pay for pads, tampons or cups — something that affects 65% of Kenyan women, despite the fact that this country was the first in the world to exempt those products from VAT — and against what she refers to as the stigma on menstruation, the shame of acknowledging the existence of the period. So, she went ahead and entered the Senate, as several workers gave her the same warning they had given to many women before: “Careful, you stained your pants.”

Although some media outlets claimed that “the incident,” as she calls it, was actually a planned performance, Orwoba insists, talking in the office where she works with an NGO and manages a free sanitary pad bank with private donors, that it was accidental. “I have been talking to girls since as far back as 2007 about how to manage their periods, menstrual hygiene, that they should not feel ashamed. I’ve been telling girls in school that they should be proud of their periods. So at that moment, I had to tell myself: ‘be proud of your period.’” Less than an hour later, she was asked to leave after an altercation in which another member of Parliament accused her of failing to comply with the dress code. But Orwoba did not go home to change; she stayed and spoke to the media outside. Then she went to distribute sanitary pads at a school, as she has been doing for a few years. The image of her blood-stained pants spread through media outlets and social networks around the world.

Question. Driving through Nairobi, one doesn’t take long to find you on billboards, wearing a t-shirt that says: “Anything you can do, I can do bleeding,” and announcing that you want to end period shaming. What is the idea behind this?

Answer. Period shaming is making a girl or a woman feel that menstruation is something that they should hide, something they should not talk about, a sinful, dirty thing. Like what happened to me in Parliament when they said, “You need to go and change your clothes.” Why do I need to go and change my clothes? Because it makes you uncomfortable. Because you think it’s something that should not be seen. That’s what I call period shaming.

Q. You also campaign against period poverty.

A. Yes. It’s intertwined. For instance, people who can’t afford the disposable pads sometimes feel like they have to use the reusable ones. But then, one thing you will find is that people can’t wash them well. They will wash them, but they can’t hang them on the lines because it is like, “Oh, people will see that I’m hanging my reusable pads on the lines.” And that becomes a problem, because if I can’t hang them in the sun so they can dry so that they’re safe for me to use, then I can’t use them, because I’ll get infections.

It affects, even just carrying the pads when you’re going to the toilet. We always wrap them and hide them. You don’t see someone putting a tampon on the desk in their office. If we end period shaming, then girls can come and say, “I don’t have any pads. Can you help me?” But as long as it’s shameful, they are just going to suffer, figuring out how to manage their periods.

Q. What is the situation like for a woman who cannot afford to buy menstrual hygiene products in Kenya?

A. If a person is living on a dollar a day, you can be 100% sure that that person is not able to afford menstrual hygiene products. Right now the cheapest pad is around 48 Kenyan shillings [approximately $0.33]. 65% of women and girls in Kenya cannot afford menstrual hygiene products. And if they can’t afford it, they have to find a way to manage their periods. And that’s where you have the sexual favors, the sex for pads. In rural areas, when the parents realize that you have started your period, that’s an extra burden for them, so they marry you off. Or they use other materials that are not hygienic to manage their bleeding; old pieces of sponge from chairs, for instance. Or they simply stay at home during the four to six days of their periods. That’s why you hear me saying that this is a shadow pandemic; it’s just that you don’t see it. When you don’t see it, you think it doesn’t exist.

Q. Kenya was the first country in the world to remove VAT on menstrual products, in 2004, and it has also removed import taxes on pad-making materials. But the issue of period poverty remains.

A. They removed the wrong taxes. They removed the import tax. That means that we opened the market to products from abroad, particularly from China. That doesn’t solve the issue of period poverty. It actually elevates it, because we have local manufacturers who shut down their companies because they could not compete. The importers bring products at a very low cost, double up the price and make money out of it.

Q. The law in Kenya dictates that school-aged girls must receive free menstrual products.

A. The law just says that the Ministry of Education should provide sanitary pads to girls in schools. The law doesn’t say how many times the ministry should provide, to how many schools, with how big or small a budget, what kind of materials, pads, tampons, how frequently, what is the monitoring and evaluation of the product.

That’s where my bill comes in. First of all, this provision of sanitary pads should not be in the hands of the Ministry of Education. It should be the Ministry of Gender. This is an activity that should happen every quarter, and we are going to give the business to local manufacturers. If we address the issue of local manufacturing, even with the VAT, we can bring down the price to 35 shillings [approximately $0.24].

Q. In 2019, a tragedy related to that stigma you mentioned shocked Kenya and other African countries: a 14-year-old girl killed herself after being harassed at school for staining her uniform.

A. When we launched the bill this year, my team told me that the story of Jacqueline needs to take the center stage of it. I agreed, because this is the worst thing that could happen to a girl who cannot afford sanitary pads.

Q. What do you think of the campaigns to distribute reusable pads in developing countries?

A. I have reservations about reusable pads because of two things. One is that the stigma and the shame around menstruation cause hygiene problems. My second reservation is this: I don’t believe that help should come in the form of regressive material. I have lived in Europe. I have not seen a push for Europeans to take on reusable sanitary pads. In fact, in Europe, there is a push for Europeans to take on menstrual cups, which is the next progressive, innovative menstrual hygiene product. But we haven’t really embraced tampons as we should, which means that embracing the menstrual cup would be an issue. But why take us back to washing our blood when we can work on getting eco-friendly products to create disposable pads?

Q. Some will say that this problem of poverty and the stigma on menstruation are important, but not as serious as others problems affecting Kenya.

A. I’ve been told that my bill should not even come to the Senate. The men were saying that this is a stupid bill. That it does not deserve their attention. And I keep reminding them that menstruation is the beginning of life. I keep telling them, “You can ignore us. You can say everything you want. But every single one of you is on Earth because of a missed period [laughs], and you don’t want to talk about periods.”

Q. You were raised by your father. You were four sisters. How did you experience your period?

A. It was awkward, but with time he also learned that he should not wait for us to ask, so when we went to the supermarket, he said: “Everybody go get what you need and come back.” And then we would meet at the counter where he would pay. And I’m privileged because he could pay, but I can’t imagine how it is for people whose parents are not able to do that.

Q. Are young women today better informed about menstruation?

A. I feel like education has evolved. Parents are more open and talk about these things more. And even outside of the schools, in social media and phones, there is more access to information. We didn’t have that, we didn’t have phones, we didn’t have computers. We had to talk to each other and hear stories from each other and figure out what the truth was.

Q. Do you define yourself as a feminist?

A. No, because here it has a negative connotation. I am a women’s rights activist. Which is the same thing; but if you say “feminist,” you’re a noise maker.

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