Gloria Orwoba's Right to menstruate
Hilda Berg | April 26th, 2023
Hilda Berg | April 26th, 2023
‘The biggest impact is that we got men talking about periods – and that breaks cultural barriers to some level. Period shaming starts with the boy, because they have been brought up to believe that if a woman happens to have a stain, it’s an appropriate response to laugh at, or castigate her – and then the woman has been taught that they need to go into hiding. That’s the unlearning that we need to do,’ says Kenyan Senator Gloria Orwoba in response to the national backlash, and support, she received as a result of her period-related incident. The incident that got her kicked out of the parliamentary building, ordered to leave by Senate Speaker Amason Kingi. The incident that was nothing more than a woman caught by surprise by her monthly period, simply to decide that her body’s ways should not hinder her ability to do her job. Her colleagues, men and women who rule the country beside her, did not agree.
It was in February of this year that Kenyan Senator Gloria Orwoba was about to enter the parliament when she noticed a period stain on her pants. As a proud advocate for menstrual rights, she decided to continue her entry into her workplace, when female senate staff urgently approached her in an attempt to cover her up and plead that she return to her car.
‘Since I am always advocating against period shame,’ Sen Orwoba said, ‘I thought I should go ahead and walk the talk.’
The truly advocating decision did not seem much appreciated by her colleagues, as she was shamed and criticized continuously by numerous MPs, including woman Senator Tabitha Mutinda, claiming that she found Orwoba’s appearance to be uncomfortable and inappropriate.
‘You don’t understand if she’s on the normal woman cycle or she’s faking it, and it is so indecent,’ Sen Mutinda commented as she asked Speaker Kingi to rule Sen Orwoba’s clothing disobeying the dress code.
Regardless of whether or not Sen Orwoba actually experienced a situation that many women find similarity in themselves, it is certainly not an empowering act to deem a period stain ‘indecent’ solely because Sen Mutinda has been unable to rid herself of a degrading take on menstruation. It certainly propagates the question of how to encourage the next generation of girls to run for elected office if they are scared they will be shamed for a most natural act while doing so. Approximately 65% of Kenyan women and girls cannot afford their monthly period products. How can any person in that 65% dare to run for a political post, or any position of power for that matter, if they cannot afford to take proper care of their monthly menstruation, and be classified ‘indecent’ for the inability to do so?
Much worse, Senator Enoch Wambua’s commentary on Sen Orwoba’s stain does nothing to end the deeply-rooted period stigma, claiming that,
‘What Sen Gloria has done to this house is a disgrace, it is a lot of shame to this house. This must not be allowed to happen,’ indirectly implying that Sen Orwoba should rather forfeit her voice as people’s representative than fulfill her duty with a stain on her pants.
Approximately halfway through the session during which Sen Orwoba had done nothing more wrong than participate in activity by the people and for the people, Senate Speaker Kingi ruled Orwoba leave the building, if nothing but to ‘change and come back with clothes that are not stained’. In an additional act of rebellion against the period stigma which cannot seem to be removed from even what is supposedly the center of Kenyan freedom, Sen Orwoba disregarded Speaker Kingi’s ‘advice’ and remained in the same clothes as she spoke to the media, after which she went on to distribute sanitary pads to a school in Nairobi.
Gloria Orwoba’s refusal to bow down to the thought that she should be ashamed of her body’s ways has caused much debate on period shaming and the lack of sanitary pads for school girls across Kenya. Some women and rights organizations have come out in full support of her actions, such as Global Citizen Africa tweeting ‘Breaking the period stigma is crucial to ending period poverty.’ Unfortunately, widespread period shaming seemingly goes hand in hand with misogyny, leading to severe cyberbullying targeting Sen Orwoba, labeling her actions as ‘shameful’, questioning her legitimacy as a leader, and even subjecting her to threats of sexual violence. Arguably, if a woman’s period stain triggers enough uproar to threats of sexual assault, it really does serve as printed proof that menstrual rights truly has a long road to travel before no school girl ever has to feel the need to sacrifice her education, due to something entirely out of her control, ever again.
In 2019, a 14 year old girl took her own life after receiving harsh period shaming from her teacher, being called ‘dirty’ for staining her uniform during her first period. As many as one million Kenyan school girls miss out on their education every month due to period poverty, leading to many of them falling behind in their studies and, eventually, dropping out. In fact, period poverty is so prevalent in the country that 10% of all 15 year old girls sell sex in order to pay for their period products. In other words, teenage girls are forced to give up their human rights in order to avoid the same fate as Gloria Orwoba did. 42% of Kenyan school girls have never used sanitary pads, instead resorting to homemade options which can pose serious health risks, including rags, blankets, pieces of mattress’ and tissue paper. In the Kenyan parliament, women make up less than one third of the MPs. Are any of these statistics a coincidence? Considering that period poverty contributes to health complications, humiliation, poor access to employment and reduced opportunities to pursue an education, probably not. Gloria Orwoba said she longs for the day when period stains will be considered only normal, not shameful. Thus paraphrasing, Gloria Orwoba longs for the day that can turn that one third of MPs into half of the MPs, and where no girl will be punished for being a girl, ever again.
‘For legislators to feel the urge of legislating things into law, they must be subjected to the advocacy and to the noise,’ Sen Orwoba said in response to her decision to not let her period ruin a day of serving the people of Kenya.
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Velimirovic, Claudia, and Claudia VelimirovicClaudia Velimirovic is in her fourth and final year at McGill University pursuing a major in honours International Development and a minor in Social Entrepreneurship. This is her third year writing for Catalyst and she is particularly i. “Claudia Velimirovic.” Catalyst, 10 Nov. 2021, https://catalystmcgill.com/a-look-at-the-impact-of-period-poverty-and-period-shame-on-girls-in-kenya/.
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