Menstrual struggles girls and women living with disability face

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Dr Denis Miskellah, an obstetrician and gynaecologist at the Kenyatta National Hospital, Nairobi. He says periods should never be a source of pain, discomfort or hinder the wellness of a woman.


What you need to know:

  • Many times, we fail to pay attention to the needs of People Living With Disabilities.
  • What happens to that woman on a wheelchair without a caregiver? What about the one who cannot access a washroom?

Eighteen years ago, Lucy* from Nyalenda slums in Kisumu County got her first period at the age of nine.
Lucy, who is physically disabled on both hands and on one leg, had no idea what was happening. She went to the toilet and did what she thought was cleaning up then returned to class. She was in Class Four.

But classmates soon started complaining of a bad odour from her direction. Luckily, a female teacher intervened and gave her a pad.
“She accompanied me to the latrine and helped me put on the pad, briefly explained what was going on before excusing me to go home since I was also having severe menstrual cramps,” says Lucy.

Now 27, she admits that had it not been for the teacher, she might never have been able to put on the sanitary towel due to lack of knowledge and incapability due to her physical disability. Since that eventful day, Lucy explains, periods are a hassle.

“While a lady should be proud of her menses, this has not been the case with me. The onset of my monthly periods is always the beginning of stressful days,” she explains.
As much as she always strives to be clean, the circumstances around her are rarely conducive.

Due to lack of disability-friendly latrines, she is forced to sit on latrine floors to change pads, a danger to her health.
“I cannot squat or bend as other ladies do when changing pads,” says Lucy, adding that her flow is always heavy, meaning she cannot stay with the pads for an entire day.

“The only safe place is home, where I can sit on a plastic chair while changing.”
She explains that due to the dearth of friendly facilities, she often has painful rashes around her genitals. Sometimes she resorts to staying a whole day without changing.  This causes not only leakages but also rashes and itchiness around her genitals.

Twenty-one-year-old Mercy*, who uses a wheelchair, says the fact that her periods are heavy and irregular worsens her situation. She depends on a caregiver to change pads.
But it is not every day that she has someone around to help. Sometimes she is forced to stay with a single pad for up to two days.
This results in leakages, bad smell, among other challenges, making Mercy wish that she could be exempted from the biological process.

“It always feels uncomfortable. I have painful sores around my genitalia. Seeking medical attention is another challenge due to lack of funds,” she explains.
Mercy, who lives in a Kisumu slum, says she buys water for use but when financially constrained, there is little she can do while her hygiene is at stake.

Another challenge is the cost of the sanitary towels. She has to part with Sh74 for a single packet, which was Sh50 a couple of months ago.
Ms Emma Atieno, a gender officer and the Kisumu County menstrual health champion, says that many times, people tend to limit menstrual sanitation to provision of pads when there is a lot more to be done to ensure the comfort of women.

Ms Atieno explains that a number of women struggle with sanitation challenges due to poverty, disability, among other challenges.
“We have common cases in the slums where the girls might even go for a day without showering due to lack of clean water. For the disabled, some of the public washrooms are not disability-friendly, making it hard for one to change whenever on their menses.”

Dr Dennis Miskellah, a Nairobi-based gynaecologist, says periods should never be a source of pain or hinder the wellness of a woman.
Dr Miskellah, who is also the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Union deputy secretary-general, says that during menses, a lady should practise a certain level of cleanliness that includes showering, regular change of pads and access to medication.

The heath expert says during menses, the vaginal area, which is always acidic, changes to alkaline, killing the good bacteria. As a result, a woman who stays with pads for longer periods is likely to get fungal infections, suffer from progesterone hypersensitivity accompanied with itching, rashes, and flaky patches.

According to Dr Miskellah, a number of women shun health facilities when they experience the symptoms – which they may think are due to sexually transmitted infections – and instead opt for the over-the-counter drugs.
“The practice is even more dangerous since the long-term effects may lead to infertility or may be a life-threatening condition,” he says, also stressing on the need for proper disposal of used pads.

“The practice is even more dangerous since the long term effects may lead to infertility, or may be a life threatening condition,
“Many times, we fail to pay attention to the needs of People Living With Disabilities. What happens to that woman on a wheelchair without a caregiver? What about the one who cannot access a washroom?”

The health expert emphasises the need to have disability friendly washrooms and free sanitary dispensers in public places.
“There is also a need for sex education. It is high time we did away with period stigma by openly speaking about the biological process,” he says.