- Menstruation is a subject talked about in hushed tones and often only by women. But, Denis Nzioka walks around with sanitary pads just in case he comes across a woman who needs one.
- The desire to break the silence and change the narrative of shame associated with menstruation motivates me.
- I believe candid conversations and sustained dialogue on taboo topics will help change lives for the most vulnerable people.
- 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.
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.
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), Men who have sex with other Men (MSM), and sex workers.
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 on occasion, 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 girls and boys from Korogocho who had dropped out of school. During one lesson, one girl got her first period. Some classmates laughed at her, while others wondered in horror if she had hurt herself.
The girl was very disturbed and she immediately left for the bathroom. I assumed she had gone to ‘check’ on herself. One of my female colleagues went after her and learnt that her period had started. My colleague then went to the shops, bought a pair of pads, and then gave to the girl telling her if she needed more, she could inform her. The girl ultimately came back to class later on.
That’s when I realised that menstruation is not just a women’s issue. Even men should be part of it. Since then, I carry 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.