On May 28, 2017 Kenya celebrated the Menstrual Hygiene Day; the key message was “let us all break the silence and stigma on menstruation”. During the celebrations, the government announced that it will release a national policy and strategy on menstrual hygiene management. However, of notable concern was the fact that the men by structural default are at the fore front with this noble policy agenda. From my purview, ignoring women presence and consigning them to invisibility can lead to imbalances and have a negative impact on the policy.
The Menstrual Hygiene Day is a global platform that brings together non-profits, government agencies, the private sector, the media and individuals to promote Menstrual Hygiene Management, it also raises awareness on the challenges women and girls worldwide face due to their menstruation, highlights solutions that can address these challenges and enable women and girls to reach their full potential.
In Kenya, this policy falls under the Ministry of Health which happens to have male honchos and technocrats managing all key positions that influence and shape any policy making. The positions include Director of medical services, The Cabinet Secretary, The Principle Secretary and The Director of public health positions respectively. While this is not meant to raise an alarm to feminist activist to get up with their placards, there is something fundamentally out of order when a policy that directly benefits women is dominated and led by male honchos and technocrats. There is a clear indication that even though women are the ones who will directly benefit from menstrual hygiene policy they are still under-represented in the formulation and implementation of this policy to meaningfully influence and shape it. So, where are the women?
A recent survey in Kenya has revealed that women constitute majority of the population and that their level of participation in policy issues has remained minimal. The survey also revealed that since men dominate public decision-making processes, it is the male values that are reflected in the decision-making bodies and policies.
The question now facing Kenya’s menstruating population is, ‘who will tell these honchos and technocrats in the name of policymakers that women need to be the ‘face’ of this important policy for it to gain high acceptance levels? Significant barriers to high-quality menstrual hygiene management persist across Kenya and remain a particular challenge for low-income women and girls. A recent study funded by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation indicates that only 50 per cent of girls say that they openly discuss menstruation at home and only 12 per cent of girls in Kenya would be comfortable receiving the information from their mother. This points to us the fact that there are taboos surrounding menstrual hygiene and thus not an easy topic of discussion nor a comfortable policy for the male to effectively monitor and evaluate, leave alone implement.
Despite a lack of discriminatory intent, subtle, gender bias that persists in Kenya’s ministry of health can obstruct policy implementation. Hence there is a strong need for the government to enhance the visibility of women to the achievement of this noble policy. Male leading a ‘taboo’ policy benefiting women presents situations that inadvertently undermine the success rate of the said policy. Significant global research on policy development implementation has revealed a high success rate when women own and drive issues that concern them. Studies also show that the under-representation of women can undermine a policy’s relevance and effectiveness.
In spite of the international declarations affirming the rights and equality between men and women of which Kenya is a signatory, available literature shows that women still constitute a disproportionately small percentage of those participating in policy formulation and implementation.
The lack of enough representation, participation and empowerment in policy matters and decisions therein that affect women lives, like menstrual hygiene management, to a great extent may affect the quality of the so called national policy. Given the nominally higher population of women in Kenya, it is only right for them to equally participate and be visible in policy decisions on matters affecting and benefiting them.
There is no doubt that lack of high level policy ownership and visibility between key stakeholders (women) and government bureaucracy will hinder progress on menstrual policy. While the government has made great strides in formulating a comprehensive policy on menstrual hygiene management, unless women are in the forefront as key stakeholders, this policy may not make significant impact and achieve its intended purpose.
Amongst other things, if women own this policy the government will have a deeper understanding on the unique needs of its menstruating population and best ways to support them, as opposed to relying on male honchos and technocrats who heavily theorize without experience. This will also ensure improved monitoring and evaluation of the policy, thereby illuminating what is working well and identifying areas for improvement firsthand as policy benefactors. Immediate opportunities exist to better partner with women in Kenya, including allowing them to drive the agenda on menstrual hygiene management policy.