What you need to know:
- Sylvia Nduku issues with extremely painful periods began while in Form Two.
- Whenever she starts a new job, she notifies her employer of her condition and is often allowed to work from home when menstruating.
- Studies suggests that at least 10 to 14 per cent of women are affected by painful periods.
- The two women believe that a menstrual leave would be the best reprieve for them.
Sylvia Nduku first got her period in primary school.
Her issues with extremely painful periods, however, began when she was in high school, in Form Two. She recalls how she would be in so much pain that she could not concentrate in class.
“The school nurse did not understand my predicament and would instead ask me to run around the field or to drink hot water, which did not help much,” she says.
When she left for holiday, she made sure to stash enough painkillers to last her through the next term. As she used the painkillers, her body became resistant and they stopped working for her.
By the time she was getting to university, she opted to look for alternative ways to deal with her pain. She visited different gynaecologists but did not get a solution.
After about five years of dreading periods, she was finally diagnosed with endometriosis, a condition in which uterine tissue grows outside of the uterus.
“My new gynaecologist gave me two options, hormonal treatment or surgery to remove the tissue. I was not ready for surgery and settled for the pill, which I take for 63 days non-stop, then break for seven days and repeat,” she says.
Phyllis Wanjiru too, experiences extremely painful and unmanageable periods. Ms Wanjiru started her menses when she was 16, in Form Four. For the first year, things were fine. However, when she joined campus, things changed. Her flow became extremely heavy.
“I was concerned that I was changing my maxi pads every two to three hours. When I asked my friends, they encouraged me that since I was just in my second year of menstruating, things would get better,” she recalls.
Her period pains were not consistent. While some months were manageable, others were not. When her pain was severe, she would skip most of her lectures and instead just sleep.
As she transitioned to work, they became significantly worse. And in 2019, she decided to seek treatment.
She was diagnosed with ovarian cysts. Like Ms Nduku, she was also put on hormonal therapy, which was a combination of pills and injections. For the next few months, the treatment appeared to work.
In 2020, however, her period pain came back worse than before. To date, she has not found an effective treatment and is still searching for options that may work.
Managing at work
Period pain is considered to be a normal part of a menstrual cycle and will be experienced at one point by most women.
According to Kenya Laparoscopic Surgery Services, a clinic offering treatment for severe period pain, normal period pain does not impair one’s ability to do normal activities.
It only occurs on the first one or two days of the period and goes away after taking period medications or using the contraceptive pill.
Data on the exact number of women who suffer extreme period pain is limited but various studies suggests that at least 10 to 14 per cent of women are affected.
It is not uncommon for women like Ms Nduku and Ms Wanjiru who experience severe period pain to also suffer from among others nausea, vomiting, headaches and diarrhoea.
Whenever Ms Nduku starts a new job, she notifies her employer of her condition and is often allowed to work from home when menstruating. Aside from ensuring she never skips her pills, she always has a hot water bottle to alleviate the discomfort. She also takes long walks, which she realised help with the pain and tends to sleep more.
For Ms Wanjiru, she takes at least two days off from work.
“I often resort to overdosing on pain killers, if I must work from the office. Even then, my productivity is greatly affected not only because of the cramps, but also the headaches and bouts of depression. In addition, I spend so much time in the toilet, having to constantly change,” she notes.
When Kenya launched its Menstrual Hygiene Management Policy (2019-2030), it was hailed as milestone in the country’s movement towards universal access to adequate sanitation and hygiene.
Its rationale was to enhance the menstrual health management status of women and girls in Kenya, and to contribute towards the realisation of their full potential in national development.
One progress indicator outlined in the strategy is “women and girls can manage their menstruation safely, with privacy, comfort and dignity in public spaces including marketplaces, transport hubs, workplaces, government buildings, educational and other public institutions.”
For Ms Nduku and Ms Wanjiru, privacy and comfort at workplaces when menstruating sounds like a farfetched dream. They are lucky to both have empathetic bosses who can grant them sick-offs and leave days when need arises. However, they both believe that a menstrual leave would be the best reprieve for them.
“I still want to work, meet my objectives and excel at my career. At the same time, I do not want to deplete my regular leave days nursing my period pain instead of resting and rejuvenating like my colleagues. A menstrual leave of at least two days would be very helpful,” says Ms Wanjiru.
Ms Nduku agrees that a menstrual leave would be a positive move.
“Before I got a diagnosis, it was difficult to explain to my employer how periods were affecting my ability to work. Instead, I would push myself even when I knew my output would be close to zero. I hope one day menstrual leave becomes law in Kenya so that women do not feel compelled to work when they are in excruciating pain,” she says.
Last month, a Moroccan Parliamentary group proposed a bill, which if made law, will grant women paid menstrual leave. This would make Morocco, the second country in Africa, after Zambia, with such a law. Similarly, in May Spain’s cabinet approved a bill that grants paid medical leave for women who suffer severe period pain.
If passed by parliament, it will be the first country in Europe to offer women time off while menstruating.
Globally Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan and South Korea are the few countries with such legislations.
In Kenya, different individuals have come out to petition the government to grant women menstrual leave.
Four years ago, Tom Mwiraria through an online petition, asked the Kenyan government through the Ministry of Public Service, Youth and Gender affairs to pass a law granting every employed woman one paid leave every month during periods. To date, the petition has attracted only 711 signatures.
Esther Patrick started a similar petition three months ago, which has gotten 35 signatures. Women like Ms Nduku and Ms Wanjiru will have to wait longer if change is to come.
“Menstruation is a natural process for women. It is time to draft and implement policies that make working when menstruating manageable,” concludes Ms Wanjiru.