Nearly one million Kenyan girls skip school because they lack access to sanitary pads. And while teaching women the facts about their own body is essential, experts say one way to change attitudes is to bring men into the conversation.
In 2005, Joshua Omanya was sentenced to death.
A self-confessed 'bad boy', he grew up in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya, where mud huts and a maze of shacks line the narrow streets. He dreamed of being a footballer, but his mother was a single parent who sold fish for money. There was little spare cash to buy the football kit he so desperately wanted, so his friend offered up a solution: stealing from people at matches.
While Omanya initially escaped unscathed, his friend got caught and was stoned to death. After that, he bought a gun, but was also later caught and arrested.
Suddenly, aged 22, Omanya found himself with weeks to live. Things progressed slowly, however, and in 2012, after seven years in prison, he appealed and was acquitted due to lack of evidence. Despite spending the best part of his twenties behind bars, Omanya counts his blessings.
'All my friends were gunned down by the cops. Luckily I was sent to jail, which saved my life,' he explains. 'But I couldn't go back to that life because I was afraid of death. I had to do something different.'
No one – let alone Omanya – could never have predicted that 'something different' would involve spending his days teaching teenage boys about periods. Yet, nearly a decade later, he's doing exactly that. In slums across Nairobi, the 34-year-old works as a trainer with The Cup, a non-profit organisation that provides menstrual cups to underprivileged girls and teaches kids about safe sex, reproductive rights and pregnancy.
In Kenya, nearly one million girls skip school because they have no access to sanitary pads.
Information is sparse or inaccurate, and the secrecy swirling around periods can cause everything from isolation to reproductive health problems. They're also a huge taboo.
Yet one way to change cultural attitudes towards menstruation, say experts, is to bring men into the conversation – the fathers, brothers and husbands who see these women daily.
Omanya agrees. Despite the somewhat strange turn his life took, he now feels like he's got a job to do.
'African men don't want to hear anything about menstruation or blood,' he smiles, 'and we need to change that.'
ra is the largest slum in Africa, and one of the biggest in the world. Shops made out of bright pink and baby blue-painted planks of wood, with rusty tin sheets for the roof, sell everything from kumquats to knock-off Nikes. The area is home to perhaps some 700,000 people, but nobody knows for sure – Kibera is left to its own devices. Poverty is rampant (most live on less than 70p per day), unemployment is high, there is a shortage of education and crime is something residents live with day to day.
So Omanya understands where these kids come from – and uses this to his advantage.
The 'menstruation' training is split into two one-hour sessions; the first covers introductions and topics such as crime and drugs. It's about building up the kid's trust, Omanya says, and only in the second session does he bring up menstruation.
'We lose a lot of boys in the slums,' he says. 'So when I tell them my story they always listen, which means they're then more opening to listening about periods.'
In the second session, he demonstrates how the device works. In low-income countries, the menstrual cup is one simple solution to 'period poverty' because there's no odour, they don't leak and – most importantly – they last for up to ten years. Made of medical-grade silicone, the device sits low down in the vagina and collects blood for eight to 12 hours at a time.
The boys are inquisitive, says Omanya, and all-male classes give the kids the freedom to say or ask whatever they want.
'Last week, a boy asked me: "this thing is very big, how can it fit in…there?' There's some questions you just can't ask in front of your female classmates,' explains Omanya.
A lot of the work they do also involves busting decades-old myths. Both sexes have little knowledge about each other's reproductive systems and so rely on unscientific advice from their friends.
Out of a class of 30, says Steve Kipepeo – a second trainer at The Cup – only two boys will know what a sanitary pad is. Many think that if you drink Coca-Cola after sex, it washes away the sperm. Or if you have sex in a certain position, you won't get pregnant.
The Cup originally just focused on girls. Which, when you realise 65% of Kenyan women and girls can't afford sanitary pads, makes a lot of sense. Locally branded pads cost $1 per pack, and when such costs compete with an entire family eating for a week – there's a clear winner. Those who do manage to buy pads often use them again and again, which can lead to chafing and infection. Most girls, however, will use old clothes, blankets, socks, tissue or pieces of mattresses as an alternative.
There's also the issue of 'pads for sex', where girls will sleep with men for money so they can afford sanitary products.
Since launching in March 2015, The Cup have trained 14,000 girls – as well as their parents and teachers – across 11 slums in Nairobi. But six months in, it became obvious to co-founder Camilla Wirseen that something was missing: where were the boys?
Out of a class of 30, only two boys will know what a sanitary pad is
'It's not like they weren't curious' explains Kipepeo. 'When the girls had their training session, the boys would peep through the window, trying to listen in. We're talking to teens about safe sex, pregnancy and rape – you can't separate guys from that conversation.
Omanya agrees: 'It's kind of crazy, why would you leave boys out?'
Together they've now trained 7,000 boys. Yet their work doesn't simply stop at patching up holes in ropey sex education – it's about actively trying to change cultural behaviour.
Cost aside, there's a huge culture of shame, fear and secrecy surrounding a woman on her period. In Kenya, bleeding is something you're told to hide and not talk about. The biggest fear, however, is leaking. There's nothing quite like the hot humiliation of staining the back of your clothes and everyone – mainly boys – pointing and teasing. It's a very real problem, and is another of the main reasons why girls miss school during their menstrual cycle in Kenya.
As Kipepeo so neatly sums it up: 'they're scared of becoming a laughing stock.'
Many boys we chatted to talked about making fun of their classmates. 'We call it "raining"' explains 18-year-old Hassan Kazungu. 'If you ask to borrow a girl's pen and she refuses, you'd be like "why are you moody? Are you on your period? You're raining blood, aren't you?"'
So the educators teach boys to talk about periods – and keep on talking. The idea is to totally demystify the menstrual cycle. And it seems to be (somewhat) working: Kazungu went from thinking periods were 'gross' ('All that blood? Yuck') to 'less gross' after training.
'I know menstruation is something natural and it happens to every girl and woman around the world,' he explains. 'Before I used to laugh at girls – even my own sister. I would mock her, and start embarrassing her in front of her friends, but nowadays I wouldn't laugh. If she leaked, I would tell a teacher or the principle. I would help her.'
It's about changing people's mind-sets, say Wirseen. 'In Africa, women are submissive. Men decide if a condom is used or not – and that is the reason why 40% of girls are pregnant before the age of 22. I met a girl whose mum hadn't seen her since she gave birth aged 14 – these girls become outcasts. So you have to change the boys' and the girls' thinking from an early age.'
The Cup programme is now being rolled out in several locations across the country, namely in Turkana, in remote northern Kenya. The people of the Turkana tribe live in one of the most hostile places on Earth, and access to sanitary provision is hard to find. Wirseen handed out 150 menstrual cups on a recent trip.
'The traditional Raia girls don't wear underwear because of poverty – they just sit and bleed in the sun.'
She continues: 'We're all so ashamed of ourselves, right? So whether you're in Kenya or the UK, the more we speak about periods, the more it will become less of a taboo. And I hope every woman – wherever she is – will feel better.'