Kenyan Senator Gloria Orowbi was recently kicked out of a parliamentary session for making a bold statement in advocacy for free sanitary pads for schoolgirls and female prisoners.
Think about the world’s most significant demonstrations of protest in history. What made them effective and essentially changed the course of history? What made them stand out and force people to take note or, even better, take action? What made them unforgettable and earned their place in the history books? Shock value. In retrospect, many of the well-known protests in the past and present contain a level of shock value that jolts the general public and those in power into giving the cause their attention. Unfortunately, as a result of countless attempts at having their voice heard and requests falling on purposely deaf ears, there comes a time when there is nothing left to do but create a spectacle that demonstrates precisely how disgruntled society is, and it is often not a pretty sight. Protest is not meant to be palatable, especially when you’re the opposition.
Gloria Orowbi is a Kenyan Senator and activist who recently made headlines for arriving at a parliamentary session with a prominent blood stain on her trousers. This display made her colleagues “uncomfortable,” and she was promptly asked to leave and change into something different.
“When I got off the car, a senate staff ran towards me to cover me and begged me to go back inside the car. Since I am always advocating against period shame, I thought I should go ahead and walk the talk,” Sen. Orowbi said. Once inside, she was heavily criticised. A fellow female senator stated how “indecent’ and “disrespectful” she was being.
When the images of Sen. Orowbi were disseminated on the internet, many social media users echoed the sentiments of her colleagues. One Twitter user commented, “You shouldn’t make others uncomfortable in the name of advocating for certain issues in the society. Following the right channel should be best procedure.”
Another user’s comment best describes why this logic is flawed. They said, “The thing about activism or protests is that they are not supposed to be pretty. This is the reality some girls face without access to sanitary pads. There is need for discomfort when protesting because that’s the only way people will understand how serious the situation is.”
Sen. Orowbi’s display of protest was indeed shocking. She intended to spark discourse, and she succeeded in doing so.
While the senator’s act of protest may not have been on a scale as large as the Soweto Uprising on June 16 in South Africa, for example, it is still a worthy and brave act nonetheless. Statistics reveal that 1 in 10 girls’ school attendance is negatively affected by their period. Period poverty is an often overlooked issue in Africa involving many young girls and women.
A lack of access to sanitary products, hygienic spaces, and general education surrounding menstruation poses a significant risk to their health.
“Period poverty can expose young girls to various infections as their inability to access affordable and safe sanitary products can lead them to using unhealthy alternatives, which puts their health and safety at risk,” said Ijeoma Nzeagwu, founder of Sisi Red. This organisation educates and empowers rural women on menstrual health and hygiene.
These young girls and women must stay home when on their period to avoid dealing with the stress and worry of not having effective products to use daily. Often, they use unsafe alternatives like newspapers and scraps of cloth. In addition, cultural stigmas around women during their period further aided the spread of shame, misunderstanding, and disrespect surrounding menstruation.
Activists such as Sen. Orowbi understand the importance of creating a safe environment for women to experience this natural function of the body dignifiedly. But unfortunately, approximately 50 percent of school-age girls in Kenya cannot access menstrual products. That is a jarring amount of young girls missing out on their education. Given the severity of the situation, Sen. Orowbi is behind a motion to increase state funding for free sanitary pads and female hygiene products in all public schools.
The reactions of Sen. Orowbi’s colleagues towards her stained pants were distasteful and out of touch with reality and indicative of how society treats menstruation. If someone of a high calibre is treated with a lack of compassion, then imagine how bad it is for poor girls and women. If seeing a mere blood stain makes you uncomfortable, it is 10x worse for them. Sen. Orowbi’s selfless protest highlighted how those in a more privileged position see protest as an inconvenience, an offence. Therefore, if protest and activism ruin your pretty and privileged view of the world and make you uncomfortable, you’re on the wrong side of history.