Senator Gloria Orwaba: I now understand how period stigma feels like after my ejection from parliament

Nominated Senator Gloria Orwoba was kicked out of a Senate Plenary session for wearing  stained attire on February 14, 2023. PHOTO LUCY WANJIRU

What you need to know:

Nominated senator Gloria Orwaba, 36, appeared in the senate earlier this week with period stains on her white suit. In a country where period poverty affects thousands of girls, she was on a mission to draw attention to the issue. But she was kicked out of parliament and the events of this day have polarized the nation. In an exclusive interview with Saturday Magazine, she details what exactly went on in the chambers and her whys

“As I was stepping out of the car that afternoon, I hadn’t taken note of my stained suit. A senate staff, I suppose, ran up to me, hugged me from behind, and implored me to get back to the car.

Mortified and in a hushed tone, she said, “you have messed up your suit.” I was like, “my gosh, yeah, but no worries, I′ll manage.” She quickly offered to get me something to cover myself, but I refused. I could feel the embarrassment more through her. The senate had resumed its second session after a long recess so there was a lot of media around. I reckon that she worried about my photos being taken and leaked to the wild world of social media.

I took a pause and even considered the offer, but I thought to myself,” My work has revolved around ICT, women, girls, and ending period poverty. I said to myself that I could go back home but being an advocate for menstrual hygiene, I could continue with my affairs. You know, walk the talk. I walked in.

Senator in ‘period stained’ suit kicked out of Parliament

The first legislator I met quickly grabbed my hand and led me into a private room while iterating that he was a doctor. I kept thinking, “what does a doctor have to do with menstruation? Stop it?”

In short, having a menstrual cycle in Kenya, even in 2023, remains very, very peculiar. The bell had already rung and I told him that I needed to get to the chambers. This encounter tied to my experience at the gate made me more curious and attentive to the reactions of others.

Some were sympathetic while others expressed disgust. A colleague wrote a point of order, and I was ejected from parliament over indecent dressing.

On social media, the discussion became whether it was a real period or a fake period stain. It was not fake, and I intentionally decided not to cover it. When this happened, I was preparing to give notice of motion next week on free sanitary pads to end period poverty. When this happened, it was brought forward to this week.  

Nominated Senator Gloria Orwoba was kicked out of a Senate Plenary session for wearing  stained attire on February 14, 2023. PHOTO LUCY WANJIRU

After I left parliament that afternoon, I went to donate pads, as I frequently do, then left for home. I had other meetings for the day, but I decided to postpone them. My phone has not stopped buzzing—a few reassurances, checkups on me, and a string of distasteful messages as shared on social media and on the Senators’ WhatsApp group. I understand real period stigma.

Some quarters online, maybe disgusted by the thought of its sight were saying, “thankfully, it was a fake period stain mainly because of the colour of the stain.” But, period blood can change depending on the day of your period. This was the first day of my menstruation cycle. I honestly don’t like trending. It’s overwhelming.

When I returned to the country in 2019 from Denmark where I held a position as Meta’s (formerly Facebook) facility support manager, my goal was to join politics. My interactions with residents of the Bobasi constituency, in Kisii County, where I ran for the position of MP in the 2022 general election exposed me to period poverty and its domino effect. As an individual, I don’t have first-hand experience with lack of sanitary pads.  I come from a family of four girls and was raised by my late father; Mbera Orwoba in Nairobi and he was the one buying for us the pads. 

Seeing the challenges that girls go through due to the lack of pads, in 2019 I started an initiative to donate them to various schools across the country and sharing on my Facebook page. 

There is a need, a huge need, and hence the Bill—Free Sanitary towels to end period poverty— that I am working on. I gave the notice of motion on Wednesday, 15, February, a day after my ejection ordeal. 

This is the first time that I have had this “accident” happen to me in public. Although my periods are irregular, I wasn’t expecting them this week. For the entire day, I was in between meetings and as a first-time senator, there was anxiety tied to the resumption of the session. Also, there were rumours that there were some internal politics, and some leaders were being de-whipped from the various committees. I got information later on in the day that I had been kicked out of my role as the vice chairperson of the ICT committee. Was this in relation to my menstrual activism? I don’t know and I would rather not comment on it.

I am glad to have a platform where I can advocate for the plight of women and girls who suffer in shame because they don’t have access to sanitary towels.  Even though I was very vocal and actioned on this, I really wanted to champion issues around ICT. Yet, I feel that this is my burden now and hopefully, the bill is going to legislate the framework on the provision of feminine hygiene products in all public schools, create awareness and advocacy, include lessons on menstrual hygiene in the curriculum, and ensure that all schools have bathrooms that facilitate privacy and proper disposal of the pads.

We have to end period poverty and the stigma associated with it but as long as society continues to see people experiencing menstruation as dirty, unworthy, and disgustful, and therefore periods as a shameful act, this dream will be unattainable.”