When Juliana Katini talks about the women and girls she supports in Barut – a rural community in Kenya, north-west of Nairobi – her words come to life. Due to a menstruation-hygiene programme she launched there, supplying reusable pads and providing education, the girls no longer drop out of school. “One girl told me that she no longer misses sports activities in school during her monthly periods,” she says with pride. Another woman recently told her she now enjoys market shopping during her period, without fear of leakage as a result. Lives are no longer dictated by a monthly bleed they can’t control. The key to their freedom begins here at home, with Katini’s help – and a simple pack of sanitary towels.
Like many narratives involving reproductive and sexual health, this one is exemplified by one woman’s selfless mission to champion it within her community. It’s a vocation Katini has pursued throughout her life, emboldened her mother; a woman, Katini tells me, who “had a zeal of wanting all of us to be educated so that we could have a better future”. Eighteen years ago, Katini’s mother’s zeal rubbed off in a big way: while working as a welfare officer at an oil refinery, she became deeply concerned about the sexual health of the women and girls who worked on the factory floor as casual workers. Concern swiftly turned to action. “I started education sessions to train these women on how they could take charge of their lives and those of their families,” she says. Due to her intervention, this led to the establishment of a welfare kitty designed to assist women and girls.
For Katini, emancipation and education go hand in hand, especially when it comes to women’s health. Without one, the other falters. It’s one of the main reasons she joined Raise The Roof, a charity that works with rural residents of Kenya, in 2015 – at a time when the organisation was exploring access to sanitary products in a country where 65% of women and girls are unable to afford them. Alongside period poverty is an equally pervasive issue: shame and stigma. In 2016, a report funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that only 50 per cent of Kenyan girls felt they could openly discuss menstruation at home, leading it to conclude that “significant barriers to high-quality menstrual hygiene Management (MHM) persist across Kenya and remain a particular challenge for low-income women and girls”.
Katini knows only too well how misconceived ideas about menstruation can impact women’s lives – and their rights. “Many parents who cannot afford sanitary protection for their young girls will give girls alternative sanitary protection such as dried banana leaves and old rugged clothes, among other crude items,” she tells me. “These are uncomfortable and cause the girls opt to stay at home, rather than be embarrassed in public. Apart from missing out in lessons and other educational activities, these girls are engulfed with a feeling of shame and stigma; they become withdrawn and lack confidence to participate in their day-to-day activities.”
According to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), an estimated one in 10 girls in sub-Saharan Africa misses school at some point during their period – and it is something Katini, with the help of Raise The Roof, is focused on tackling head-on. Revolutionising women’s healthcare in 2018, however, isn’t easy – which is what makes Katini’s all the more trailblazing, persisting in her work despite a worrying global isolationism trend that’s posing a real threat to women throughout the developing world. Her commitment is palpable. “I love these women and the zeal and resilience that they display in working hard to fend for their families,” she tells me. “I see the potential in these women in changing their environment and community when they are empowered and know who they are and what they can do.”
It’s not just about stitched cloth pads – this is about freedom, autonomy and empowerment. It’s about hope
Katini has been providing sanitary pads to women and girls in Barut for years, but it is only recently that she began teaching women to make them locally, partnering with a nearby vocational school which has a seamstry workshop. The project isn’t just about making the pads, Katini explains – it relies on a far more holistic approach, where pad production is combined with menstrual-hygiene education and even training and support to encourage income generation. Sessions have already trained women in skills that provide them with greater autonomy over their lives – skills such as soap- and shampoo-making, home economics, small-scale farming and jewellery-making.
You only have to speak with the women and girls who have benefited from these workshops to fully appreciate the impact Katini has had on their sense of self. Some refer to her as their closest friend; others even call her mother. The reaction so far, Katini tells me, has been amazing. “The girls’ confidence and glow is visible,” she says. “They get a sense of dignity and are able to participate in school as well as communal activities.” Not only does Katini normalise a natural monthly bleed that has been stigmatised, she tells them that they are important and needed – especially when it comes to the economic growth of their community.
There is, Katini tells me, a threefold social, educational and economic price that women pay, simply for being women. Some avoid their daily commute to work – and even Sunday mass – when their period starts, terrified of bloody leakage if they leave the house. And then there are the girls who, due to similar fears, miss so much school that they fall behind academically and eventually drop out of school due to the widening gap. “Once they drop out, if they are not encouraged to go back to school, they will either get married early or get involved in prostitution,” Katini shockingly reveals. “This leads to a community with fewer women who are literate, increased poverty in the community, poverty and apathy, and unless the cycle is broken, it’s likely to repeat itself over and over in the coming generations.”
This is why Katini’s work, and the pads she makes and distributes, matter. Because it’s not just about stitched cloth pads – this is about freedom, autonomy and empowerment. It’s about hope. When I ask Katini about the future, she tells me that her dream is “much-needed resources” to obtain their own space to produce pads themselves, independently.
There is pride in self-sufficiency. “Freedom to be me and to help others be free,” she tells me is the momentum that drives her. “When a woman is liberated, her whole family will be liberated, too.”
You can help Juliana Katini make sure that girls and women don't miss school or work and endure unnecessary stigma by visting the Raise The Roof Just Giving page and donating. Even a fiver would make a difference