16 April 2018

Kenya: Man on a Mission to Break Taboo Around 'The Menstrual Curse'

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interview

It's just shortly before midnight, two days after Easter Sunday, when Denis Nzioka tweets a picture of his new stash of pads and tampons. "My monthly supply of tampons and pads. If in need, or know anyone in need, kindly reach out to me and I will have them delivered at no cost. I also deliver to mental hospitals, Catholic sisters' nunneries and to women in prison. You can also stop me on the streets," the tweet says.

REACTIONS

It earns him rebuke and praise in equal measure.

"Monthly supply? Kwani you have grown a v*****?" one female comments.

"This is creepy ... Why would you be carrying pads just in case a woman needs them?? Stop being dragged into toxic feminism," another asks.

"It has been terrible since that post," says Nzioka, afterwards. "Terrible in the sense that I have been ridiculed and insulted, mostly by men - but also some women. However, most of the responses have been supportive."

But having lived on the fringes of society as a gay rights activist, Denis is accustomed to being derided online.

"I'm used to such responses, but they can't stop me. Many people reached out to me after my post, showing me that there is a huge gap in access to pads for girls and women. In my own little way, I am addressing this, one day and one person, at a time," he says.

WHAT'S IN MY BAG

On a typical day, Nzioka carries a pack or two of pads or tampons in his bag.

"I factor in a sizeable supply -- enough to fit into my carry-on bag, and maybe extras in my car-- during my monthly shopping. I have pads all year round and usually re-stock anytime I run out or if I get a particular demand."

He has been carrying pads for the last 10 years but added tampons recently.

"Tampons are used by women for their portability, discreetness and ease of use. I think pads are mostly for those with heavy flows, and because they are easily available and affordable."

"I added panty liners as they are really popular these days. I've also had women who request certain tablets to help with menstrual cramps, which cost say 10 bob. Others have requests for a roll of tissue or wipes so I also carry some - just in case. My last shopping for pads, tampons and panty liners that I could carry comfortably in my bag cost around Sh2,000. I have a pack of baby wipes as well since I am raising a four-month-old old boy!"

The devout Catholic and human rights defender insists that we should question the language around menstruation.

"Why do we refer to pads as 'sanitary'? Are we further perpetuating the belief that women who menstruate -- or menstruation -- is dirty, and thus needs 'sanitation?' No, they are not 'sanitary pads' they are (menstrual) pads. Menstruation is not dirty, shameful or wrong. We should embrace our bodies and their functions," he asserts.

So, who is Denis Nzioka?

I'm a sexual and gender minorities activist, with a particular focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, queer (LGBTIQ). When I am not on the streets shouting "gay rights are human rights" or behind a screen tweeting on sexuality, you can find me raising my four-month-old baby, Galilee Nzioka, watering my flowers and, occasionally, in the kitchen. I am also an avid reader, and Catholic at heart.

Why did you start carrying pads?

Ten years ago, I was teaching boys and girls from Korogocho who had dropped out of school. During one lesson, one girl had her first period. Some classmates laughed at her while others wondered in horror if she had hurt herself. She was very disturbed and immediately left for the bathroom. I assumed she had gone to "check" on herself. One of my female colleagues followed her and learnt that her period had started. My colleague went to the shops and bought her two pads. She told the girl that if she needed more, all she had to do was ask for some. The girl ultimately came back to class. That's when I realised that menstruation is not just a women's issue. Even men should be part of it. Since then, I have been carrying a pack of sanitary pads for these types of emergencies.

Why is distributing pads for free so important to you? What motivates you?

It is said that two out of three women in Kenya don't have access to sanitary pads, yet nobody wants to talk about it. Then there is the stigma and shame attached to menstruation - women and girls are considered "unclean" and some are cut off, secluded and banned from being part of society when they are menstruating. They can't even attend funerals or weddings.

The desire to break the silence and change the narrative of shame associated with menstruation motivates me. Also, I believe candid conversations and sustained dialogue on taboo topics will help change lives for the most vulnerable people.

How do you do it?

It is not a coordinated pad distribution campaign or a PR exercise or publicity stunt. It's just me buying pads and tampons with my own money and carrying them around to give any woman or girl who needs them. However, from the responses I have received so far, this is not sufficient - it needs to be a massive campaign and concerted effort by cross-sector partnerships.

Do women stop you in the streets to ask for pads?

Yes, I have been stopped on the streets several times by those who know I carry them. Last year, I "came out" online, and announced that I carry pads. This captured the interest of people in my circles, who told their friends, and word got out. I also give away pads in bars, restaurants and hotels.

I also buy pads and tampons to distribute to teenage girls' homes, sometimes to women in prison or those admitted in mental health hospital units. We often forget women in such settings - yet their incarceration does not deprive them of their body and its processes.

How do you handle the "stigma"?

There is no stigma in a man carrying pads. I am thrilled to have them at hand. Though at first people say negative things or look at me differently because they don't understand the importance of what I do. But experience has taught me that I'm on to something.

Case in point: last year at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, after passing through the metal detectors on my way to check in, my bag was taken aside for further inspection. The male security officer checking my bag removed a bottle of perfume, followed by a packet of Always pads. He and his female colleague looked at each other, then stared at me in disbelief.

"Do you use these?" they asked.

"No, I carry them for anyone in need," I answered.

The female security guard smiled, pulled me aside and led me towards the washrooms. There, she asked me for some pads.

"Unajua kupata hizi airport ni shida. Huku Duty Free hawaziuzi, na wakiuza ni expensive sana. (It is difficult to find them at the airport. They don't stock them in the duty-free shops and when they do, they sell them very expensively," she confided.

Such moments remind me that there is no shame in carrying pads as a man. It actually makes you a better person because you are aware of a need for them, and you are willing to give them to those in need.

Do you collaborate with other people who distribute pads?

When I went public about giving pads to strangers, I was contacted by several organisations and individuals who asked me to support their initiatives or to get involved in their outreaches to women and girls. The broader strategy is to make this bigger and to spark conversations that do away with the shame over menstruation, while providing women and girls with the supplies and information they need.

The government promised free pads to girls, but this has not fully been implemented ... Every home, school and church should have free pads available all the time. By providing information, and commodities, we can deal with the stigma associated with menstruation.

What's your bigger picture?

All I want is to spark conversations on menstruation (which is a natural process), access to pads and other sexual and reproductive health commodities, body integrity, choice, agency and autonomy, and conversations on how men can be involved.

Men have to get involved because they are the originators and perpetrators of legislative, policy and social frameworks that deny legal gender recognition, perpetuate violence, stigma and discrimination, and exclude women and girls, and other non-hetero-normative persons.

Your most memorable moments since you started doing this?

One Sunday, mid-last year, in church, I went to use the lavatory. The "gents" and the "ladies" face each other. As I went to the gents, I found women huddled outside a stall, speaking in low tones. I didn't think much of it since they seemed to be waiting for someone to leave the stall, until I overheard one say "Sasa tutatoa pads wapi hapa (Can we really get pads here - in church)?" I walked over to them, introduced myself and said, "I couldn't help overhearing that you need pads," then reached into my bag, took out three pads and handed them over to one of the women. They were visibly shocked, but thanked me as I left. There have been many such instances.

Is there any connection between LGBTIQ rights and your pad initiative?

There are several similarities (tongue-in-cheek) between LGBTIQ rights and menstruation. For one, menstruation, like sexual orientation and gender identity, are both natural. They are part of who we are as humans.

Secondly, like sexuality, there is a shame and silence surrounding menstruation. When we talk about it, we do so in passing, and in discomfort, eager to move on quickly to another topic.

Third, there is little information or access to commodities that relate to LGBTIQ rights or menstruation - be it information, or actual preventive commodities. Similarly, women and girls, as do LGBTIQ persons, are constantly faced with hetero-normative, patriarchal, capitalist and other interlocking systems of oppression, that continue to put them down, silence them and shame them for who they are, among other injustices.

I don't consider myself as a gay activist per se but for political reasons, I identify as gay. I am a human rights activist for all. The way I defend the right of gay men to access healthcare, is the same way I will defend the rights of girls to access contraception and other sexual and reproductive health services.

I will defend the rights of differently-abled persons to have access to buildings through requisite modifications, the same way I will join a nomadic community to agitate for access to their land and free water. I will join marches against rising food prices or extra-judicial killings. An activist does not have the privilege of an a là carte menu but should, as much as possible, defend the full buffet of human rights.

Parting shot?

To be honest, I do very little, but it is the little that we do that will add up to the changes we want to see. I am part of society with all its flaws and foibles, but I can be part of the change I want to see, by sparking a conversation on menstruation, gay rights, albinism, disability, sex, condoms, or any other issue. That's the first step. Change is gradual and painful. I am glad to be on the right side of history on this one, though.

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