Beauty queens changing tact on menstrual health literacy campaign

The two beauties, Ms Ascar Achieng (left) and Ms Beth Odek (right), with the female pupils of Pundo Kalanya Primary School in Homa Bay Town. The pupils were issued with sanitary pads and panty liners to ensure none of them misses school because of menstrual blood. PHOTO/Josiah Odanga, The Scholar Media Africa.

The sun was overhead in Pap Ndege village, Homa Bay County on Wednesday 22 September 2021.

We hit the road, destined for Sasi Primary School in Kanyadoto Ward, Ndhiwa constituency via Rodi Kopany.

The convoy had three vehicles.

We meandered the dilapidated Rodi Kopany-Ndhiwa road, even as we complained of the many diversions on a major road which had no constructor on site.

We turned left on a marram road at the Bongu junction.

The ride became bumpy, thanks to the sugarcane trucks that had trampled on the road’s beauty, if at all there once existed any.

One hour gone and we were instructed to park our vehicles at a nearby home.

It was the end of the road – for the four-wheeled machines. 

But human beings could proceed, on foot!

“Behold, Sasi Primary School is over there…” pointed the man of the terrain.

It was a distant village on the other ridge, overlooking the one we were standing on.

You had to strain your eyes to have a glimpse.

Sugarcane plantations and thickets stood in between.

It was a two kilometre stretch, in approximation. Poor us!

Energetic male pupils had been instructed to come for the cartons that we carried along.

We quenched our thirsty throats as we waited for their arrival.

Then the trekking began. The paths were rocky and steep in the beginning.

They then became plain and narrow.

Inside the sugar belt, the soil was black but we were lucky that it had not rained the previous day.

By now, those who had teeth were chewing sugarcane.

The ladies in our company dreaded crossing a wooden bridge.

With the pupils leading the way, we passed inside people’s homes.

Others in our team sarcastically sought to know whether Ndhiwa had a Member of Parliament.

Why would a village and school lack a road? They asked.

“It must be very risky for girls to walk inside here early morning or late in the evening,” one of us thought aloud.

“Now you have part of the reason Ndhiwa is leading the pack in teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases,” another person responded.

Two women were fetching water at a well with a hand pump, toddlers on their backs.

Each of the two children had a bogey in their nostrils and that made them look ugly.

Parents very young in appearance; must be between 17 and 19.

“These are cases of early marriage,” a section of our team murmured.

Yonder.., and then right before our eyes.

We arrived at Sasi Primary School at 2:34pm.

The voice of Mercy Kwamboka, the talkative community volunteer in our company, had subsided.

She was very hungry now, and tired.

The pupils who had weight on their shoulders were sweating profusely.

Nonetheless, we had set out for a course.

I was there to document the happenings.

The rest of the team had come in the name of improving menstrual health, arresting teenage pregnancies and inculcating a reading culture in the children.

They were led by Beth Odek, a lawyer and former Miss Tourism Homa Bay County (2018) and Ascar Achieng, the reigning Miss Tourism Homa Bay County – or as it is known on the ground, ‘the Miss Tourism with a title and no capacity/resources to serve’.

The school bell called the pupils who gathered under the shade of an old Eucalyptus tree.

“We have changed the approach. This session is for both boys and girls, if the stigma around menstrual health is to be stopped.

The mistake that has been repeated for a very long time is for boys to be excluded during sessions such as this,” Ms Odek told the institution’s headteacher.

Class begins

Majority of the girls were shy but boys were surprisingly very attentive – some hilariously cheeky.

Some of the girls who confessed having experienced menses offered to illustrate ‘things’ to the gathering.

But a boy was preferred.

“Boys, what would you do if your mother is not around and you notice that your younger sister has stained her dress with menstrual blood?

Will you laugh or ignore and wait for others to see the mess on her?” asked Kwamboka, who by now had gathered energy.

A boy’s voice answered: “I will help her; I cannot leave her to endure the embarrassment.”

Amidst cheer and jeer, the class 8 boy confidently surged upfront to explain and illustrate exactly what he would do.

“If it is her first time, I will advise her not to worry and be proud of herself because healthy girls must undergo such,” he said while fixing a sanitary pad and pant liner onto a pant.

The reigning Miss Tourism, Ascar Achieng, hailed the boy for leading in the fight against menstruation related stigma and for standing up for the welfare of girls.

“I am proud of the boy who has just demonstrated to us how he would do it.

That is the way to go. Boys and men should not be left behind if the war on stigma and push for menstrual literacy is to win,” said Ms Achieng.

Ms Odek appreciated teachers who had been offering menstrual literacy to the girls in the school even at the time when the society is not keen on it.

As she distributed cartons of dignity packages to the girls, Ms Odek stressed to the pupils that, “It is only through literacy programmes such as this that Homa Bay will be removed from the list of counties that lead in teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

By sensitizing both male and female, we are finishing the vulnerability of our girls,” Ms Odek said.

Earlier that day, the team had visited Pundo Kalanya Primary School in Homa Bay Town constituency where the same fashion of sensitization had ensured.

Ms Damaris Onyonyi, the senior teacher, was hailed for helping girls with good counsel and sanitary towels whenever they were in need.

“Boys have a tendency of giggling at our girls whenever they are on their periods.

It is wonderful to teach both girls and boys together; that it is okay for a girl to experience menses,” Ms Onyonyi said.

“Let our small girls be free because menses are God’s own creation.”

Ms Beth and her team with the pupils of Sasi Primary School in Kanyidoto, Ndhiwa Constituency. The pupils received story books to help them improve in languages. PHOTO/Josiah Odanga, The Scholar Media Africa.

She went on: “Most parents do not prioritise giving pads to the younger girls. We do issue pads to them but the challenge is that some parents confiscate them, some of their older siblings also steal from them.”

Vivian Achieng, a pupil at Pundo Kalanya, confirmed that it is always a tough experience when seeing your menses for the first time.

“Someone becomes afraid when experiencing menses for the first time but Ms Damaris has been of great help to us,” she said.

The pupil appreciated the donation of the sanitary towels and said that such an effort “will ensure we do not disrupt our studies. We will eventually become meaningful people in the society.”

On her part, Mildred Night, another pupil, said that some girls have become pregnant after they went begging for pads from mature males around them.

“At times a girl might be forced to beg from a man. It is sad. To the boys who laugh at us, this thing is normal; no need of laughing at a girl who is experiencing her menses. It is God who created it,” Night said.

Ms Odek and Ms Achieng hopes that their efforts will mould a society where sex, period blood and sanitary packages are referred to by their exact names, and not funny ones like mkati which prolongs the stigmatization.

They also distributed story books to help the pupils improve on languages.

The two ladies are in a mission to distribute the sanitary packages and story books to at least two primary schools in each of the eight sub counties of Homa Bay, courtesy of Kortex Kenya and Moran Publishers.

So far, they have visited more schools in Mbita and Rangwe Sub Counties.

Miss Odek observes that their approach of distributing sanitary towels – pads and panty liners – is not sustainable and called on the Homa Bay County government to back initiatives such as theirs across the county.

Ms Achieng notes that Homa Bay is one of the counties in Kenya in which noble initiatives by Miss Tourisms are often not greased with money by the county administration.

“I am just a Miss Tourism by name. There is a time in the past when money was approved by the County executive to support the activities of my office but we never saw it. Someone in that ring ate the money,” she said.

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Mr. Odanga is a Kenyan multimedia journalist, with a strong bias for writing.


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