Menstrual hygiene during pandemics: access to dignified menstruation in COVID-19 quarantine facilities in Kenya

For women around the globe, access to safe and dignified menstruation is a fundamental need. However, during pandemics like the current COVID-19, access is limited, and it is even worse in quarantine facilities leaving women and girls struggling with both the pandemic and the challenges of access to this commodity. The pandemic has shone a light on the challenges including menstruation that women and girls face in the quarantine facilities.

Kenya has recorded 12,750 positive cases of COVID-19, and has implemented several measures, including social distancing, mandatory wearing of masks in public spaces, and night-time curfew to stop the spread of the virus. With this, counties have set up at least two quarantine facilities to manage the increased infections. However, due to budgetary challenges counties are not in a position to adequately equip the quarantine facilities with sanitary towels leaving them in desperate need of supplies for women and girls.

31-year-old Jane Nyanjui is a nurse by profession and currently serves as the Deputy Nursing Manager at the Kiambu County COVID-19 centre attending to COVID-19 patients in Kenya. The mother of two shares her insights and experiences with UN Women on what it means for women and girls in COVID-19 quarantine centres in Kenya.

“I have worked as a nurse for the last 9 years, but the experiences of the last six months have been different and challenging for us as frontline workers and for the women and girls in quarantine facilities, as well since the facility admitted its first patient on 27th June 2020. Part of this challenges have been as a result of the sexual and reproductive health needs and the other bit on stigma that comes with COVID-19.”

The virus has indeed changed the way of living for women but did not stop menstrual cycles. When women do not have the resources to manage their periods safely, they often resort to using unsafe materials like rags and clothing which can cause physical health risks. UN Women, through the Council of Governors, has been supporting women and girls in COVID-19 quarantine centres targeting counties hit hardest by the pandemic by providing them with dignity kits.

One facility received 25 dignity kits from which have already been distributed to the 15 women present at the facility at the moment with the remaining for any new patients that will be admitted. However, this has not been the only challenge the health workers experienced. Jane narrates that other challenges include stigma faced by front-line workers due to their nature of work and the lack of public awareness of the important role by health care workers.

35-year-old Teresia Ruguru, a mother of 3 children, is one of the beneficiaries of the dignity kits.  “I got the infection from my husband who works in one of the hotels in Nairobi. He started experiencing the symptoms and upon tests he was found to be positive of the coronavirus and was taken to the quarantine facility in Tigoni hospital. As his close contacts, we (me and my children) where we tested positive and were hospitalised as well in the quarantine facility,” she recalls.

Teresia is among the 40 women and 8 children that have been attended to in the facility. She understands the importance of the dignity kits especially in quarantine facilities. Because of the infectious nature of the virus, the facilities do not allow patients to neither receive visitors nor have their belongings brought to the hospital. This made it harder for women and especially mothers with small children because of the sanitary towels and the diapers. Initially the hospital had set aside a small allocation to provide this essential commodity in the facilities. However, with the rapid peak of the cases in mid-July and early August, the hospital could no longer support this.

“Upon confirmation of the tests results, the next events unfolded very fast and I did not have enough time to pack things as the ambulance picked us almost immediately. I came in with my two children and I did not anticipate how long I will stay there, and the dignity kits went a long way for both myself and my children,” Teresia remembers.

Away from the confines of the medical facility, another challenge awaited. Initially the scare that came with the disease saw people shut down, while others fuelled misinformation and lack of public awareness on the causes and spread of the disease.

“As frontline workers we would not be allowed in public transport commonly known as matatus. On several occasions, I was refused entry into these matatus due to the fact that I was a nurse in a COVID-19 centre. As a female nurse, I also faced security challenges owing to the fact that my work may require working late into the night. By that time, the hospital was not providing means of transportation and we had to rely on public transport,” Ms. Nyanjui recalls.

Due to the rise in the number of asymptomatic COVID-19 patients, Kenya is planning to implement a home-based care model to cushion its health system from being overrun by the disease. The home-care system would see COVID-19 patients get treated at home, especially those in the capital Nairobi and the coastal city of Mombasa, as the two regions account for the bulk of infections in the country.

Women’s role as caregivers to children especially poses a challenge and makes them susceptible to contacting the disease, especially in women-headed households as they are the sole bread winners in the families. Even with the prevention measures in place, as caregivers their exposure to the disease remains high.

Through the Council of Governors, UN Women has distributed dignity kits to 8 counties – namely Mombasa, Kilifi, Mandera, Kitui, Kajiado, Nakuru, Kwale, and Kakamega Counties – through the County health teams. This has established seamless distribution and tracking mechanisms for items such as sanitisers and PPE kits, among others.

Originally published on UN Women Africa