The stigma around periods is holding back girls who can’t afford menstrual products, alumna Brenda Adoyo says. She is determined to break the cycle of period poverty, and to help women manage their menstruation without shame. Not just in her home country Kenya, but in Tilburg too.
They’re messy, uncomfortable, inconvenient, and sometimes cripplingly painful. But that is not all. Periods are keeping many girls from reaching their potential, Tilburg University alumna Brenda Adoyo says. “In rural Kenya, girls are often forced to quit school.”
Growing up in a Kenyan village and spending most of her teenage years in an orphanage, Adoyo had no access to proper menstrual care. “When I got my period, I used everything and anything I could find. Leaves, cloths, bedding,” she says. “You can imagine that this makes your body susceptible to infections. Eventually, I became sick.”
When Adoyo got the chance to move to Tilburg for a dance education at the age of twenty, she was still suffering the health consequences of years of poor menstrual care. “Because it bothered my dancing, I sought help from doctors in the Netherlands. They prescribed all kinds of different creams and tablets, but nothing seemed to solve the problem. After some time, I tried using a menstrual cup as an alternative to tampons or pads. At first I didn’t like it, but it worked for me. The recurrent infections reduced drastically.”
Adoyo, by then a student of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Tilburg University, believed to have found a way to improve the lives of girls and women in her country of birth. Menstrual cups are eco-friendly, rubbery cups made from medical silicon. The costs for a single high-quality cup vary between 20 and 30 euros. “A menstrual cup is reusable for up to ten years. It must be emptied and washed every eight hours, so it would allow girls to spend the day in school without any difficulties when they’re on their period,” Adoyo says.
“I remember thinking, how am I going to get this product to Kenya? It could solve so many problems. I decided to present my idea to student society Enactus at Tilburg University, and they were very enthusiastic. That’s how the Venus Cup Project started.”
Adoyo will depart for Kenya in a few weeks, carrying a suitcase filled with 300 menstrual cups. She will distribute the cups at different schools in the region where she grew up, and give education on menstruation and menstrual hygiene. “We’re collaborating with a former Doctors Without Borders nurse. She will assist me on the ground, and we will also work with a local NGO and two nurses from a local hospital.”
It will be the first time Adoyo returns to her village since she left for the Netherlands. “My parents no longer live, I have no family to return to. I’m going home, but in a sense I’m going home to nowhere. I wouldn’t say I’m nervous, but I do think it is ‘spannend’, as the Dutch say.”
“Men mostly bring the stigma, so it’s crucial that we educate them as well”
There is an additional reason for Adoyo to be a little anxious. It remains to be seen how Kenyans, men in particular, will react to the project. “I’m expecting some resistance. The mentality of Kenyan men has evolved, but there are still many traditional-minded men and parents”, Adoyo says. “I’m a young female who was educated abroad. Traditional thinking men may see me as a threat, and traditional male teachers may question whether I’ve experienced life enough to give advice to them or to the children. I’m hoping that we can get these men to come to our meetings and to listen to what we have to say. It’s not just about educating girls and women. Men mostly bring the stigma, so it’s crucial that we educate them as well.”
The stigma around menstruation in Kenya causes serious harm, Adoyo says. “As a young girl, I was taught that everything in regard to female sexuality is not to be spoken about openly. When girls get their period, they don’t know what to do or who to talk to. In some communities, they’re considered dirty, they’re not supposed to prepare food, men don’t want to be around the house. It leads to seclusion.”
Girls miss out on school during their periods, which often causes them to drop out altogether. “I’ve seen it happen many times,” Adoyo says. “When girls drop out of school, it means they will always depend on men. It puts them at risk of teen pregnancy, prostitution and HIV. It means that more children will grow up without their parents. And the cycle goes on and on.”
“In Kenya, we say that if you educate a woman, you educate the whole village”
Menstrual cups could break that cycle, Adoyo believes. By donating one menstrual cup, sponsors can directly impact the life of a girl in Kenya in a powerful way. “If you simply provide girls with something to use during their menstruation, they can build confidence, they can go to school, they can get ahead in life. In Kenya, we say that if you educate a woman, you educate the whole village. It’s a domino effect.”
According to Brenda Adoyo, period poverty doesn’t just affect the lives of women in Africa. “It’s not just Kenya that needs help, it’s Tilburg too,” she says. “We know there are people living below the poverty line in Tilburg. Because disposable tampons and pads are expensive, menstrual cups could be a good alternative for women in the Netherlands who experience financial challenges. That’s why we felt it was important to set up a parallel program in Tilburg. Students who are from families below the poverty line can come to us for help. We provide them with free menstrual cups.”
Although it’s not as apparent as in Kenya, Adoyo has noticed that menstruation is shamed in the Netherlands as well. “Generally, people are not open to talk about menstruation,” she says. “When we gave a presentation on menstrual cups during International Women’s Day here in Tilburg, some women were really grossed out by the idea of a cup that holds your menstrual blood. Because the cup doesn’t absorb blood, like a tampon or a pad, you see and touch your menstrual blood when you empty and clean the cup. For many women, this is confronting.”
“It’s not just Kenya that needs help, it’s Tilburg too”
Menstruating is an experience shared universally by women from all times and cultures. According to Adoyo, the shame surrounding menstruation is quite universal too. “The fact that vaginal wash is sold at Kruidvat, Etos and supermarkets, gives women the idea that the vagina is dirty, something to be cleaned. Is it really?”
Adoyo believes this pervasive sense of shame to be the underlying problem, which continues to hold back women in all parts of the world and which has detrimental effects on the lives of women who can’t afford sanitary products. “I’m dedicated to change that.”
Brenda Adoyo was born and raised in Kenya. She moved to the Netherlands in 2007, where she studied Choreography at Fontys Dance Academy. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts and Sciences and a master’s degree in Strategic Management from Tilburg University. She now runs her own foundation, Chance at Education Foundation (CAE), together with Tilburg University student Lisa Anthony and alumnus Zoltan Nagy.
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