Forget your privileged self for a while

Nyambura Mutanyi
17 September ,2013

I recently wrote a blog post about my experience using a menstrual cup that spurred interesting conversations. They highlighted myriad cultural, economic, and social matters that rarely come to the fore in conversation. They opened dialogue about women’s bodies, access to sanitary services, and what it means to take these things for granted.

The conversations on Twitter and Facebook that drew my attention centered round the notion of a product that requires a steady supply of water and soap. This is a question I had been asked when first I spoke of this product on Facebook. I realized, much to my consternation, I had not replied to that concern. Such is the way in which we only see or hear what we approve of. To wit, the matter of water and soap was an issue that I had not even thought to speak about in my post because it had not occurred to me at all. It evidenced the echo chamber of privilege it is so easy to fall into. Even when the hold one has on privilege is tenuous at best.

Like many developing countries, Kenya has issues of access to water. Videos like this are premised on fact. An aquifer has recently been found in the arid north and has been hailed as being historic relative to the usage trends in the republic. This is while so many of us forget that our current consumption is much lower than it should be because so many people have little or no access to water. And we still haven’t dealt with the issue of access to clean water which is a global issue.In Kenya, ‘feminine hygiene’ is no small matter. The education of girls is compromised by the absenteeism occasioned by their menstrual period. Even though girls continue to do well in school by some measures they could still do much better after puberty if a natural process wasn’t such a hurdle. This is a matter that has been highlighted in the past but the very nature of privilege includes lip service to those things that affect The Other.

There was once a time when sanitary towels were taxed in Kenya ; the thinking behind that fact eludes me. I imagine that it never crossed the mind of legislators, the tax authorities and so many other people not to tax these goods. It may be that a parliament that is dominated by men cannot fathom the consequences of tax on such essentials. For me, it also speaks to the privilege it is so easy to fall into. When one does not think that KSh 80 for a packet of sanitary towels is too much, one is clearly not reading from the same page as the vast majority of women and girls in this republic. It bears reminding that even after the tax was repealed, stories still abound of girls selling their bodies in order to be able to purchase basic things such as sanitary pads.

This is part of what drew me to the menstrual cup. It represented, for me, a break for girls and women from the cycle of purchases, cost, use and abuse. It seemed to me a way for female persons to be liberated from bodily functions so that they can aspire to greater things. If anything, the fact that the cup was designed with Kenya in mind and was piloted in Kibera was part of its attraction. What I did not think about as I read the user information was this: if one has to rinse it out so often, boil it at the end of one’s period and wash one’s hands at every turn, how is this possible in a slum with water issues? Even away from slums, how would girls across a largely rural country be able to get all the water they would need while affording them the dignity of privacy?

The main advantage of the cup, therefore, was the freedom women and girls would obtain if they used one. This was until I called a few chemists to ask how much it costs: a princely KSh 1,800. When I shared this price with a few friends, they seemed unfazed yet when one considers the people it would help most (girls without a significant, if any, disposable income), one immediately realises how prohibitive it is. Just to give context, some of the cheaper brands of sanitary towels in the market cost KSh 45 for 10. This cup costs 40 times that. Granted, it is a once-in-a-decade purchase & disadvantaged girls get it at a subsidised price but price is no small barrier to advancement.

When I saw a tweet about how the cup was intended for urban girls, not girls in a village; it brought home the privileges one takes for granted and those that people assume about others. When I wrote the post, the attendant assumption was that every person who read or shared the post would be able to learn from my experience because their lives were similar to, if not better than, mine. It did not cross my mind to ask, “What about the girl for whom all the washing would make use an uphill struggle?”. It did not even occur to me to mention its price. The tweet, on the other hand, was based on the assumption that urban girls have easy access to water while those in rural areas do not. Anyone who has been to any informal settlement in any major urban area will know that there are a lot of urban girls there; and access to water is a serious issue.

This article is about privilege, the things we take for granted, the questions we never think to ask ourselves. It’s about the ways in which we get comfortable in our niches and forget how small our group is until we are jolted into awareness, as I was. Or as so many people who think of themselves as ‘middle class’ were when milk prices rose; forgetting this fact that a person on Twitter highlighted:


This is a call for thought, for criticism of our positions, for an examination of the assumptions we deem true.

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