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period poverty

'Girls are forced to have sex in exchange for sanitary pads or 50 cents'

Young female activists are working to improve people’s lives in the largest urban slum in Africa, Kibera.

Órla Ryan reports from Kenya

shutterstock_193046378 Kibera, Nairobi Shutterstock / Aleksandar Todorovic Shutterstock / Aleksandar Todorovic / Aleksandar Todorovic

KENYA IS A country of extremes.

It has the largest economy in East Africa, yet almost half of the population live below the poverty line.

Some Members of Parliament take home €6,000 a month before generous allowances, which could more than double their salary, are applied.

The average monthly salary is about €130.

Nairobi, the bustling capital city, is the home of many multinational corporations’ African headquarters. Nairobi is also home to the largest urban slum in Africa: Kibera.

In the final of our three-part series exploring women’s rights issues in Kenya, recently travelled to Kibera.

Hundreds of thousands of people – or up to one million people, depending on various estimates – live there. One of them is Hamza Mariam (18).

IMG_3660 Hamza Mariam Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Another is Cynthia Tsisiche (24).

IMG_3361 Cynthia Tsisiche Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

They are activists who spread awareness about women’s rights and mentor females who, like them, have experienced violence at the hands of a partner. 

Both women, like others we meet, tell us that transactional sex is common in Kibera. They haven’t engaged in it themselves but understand why some girls and women fall into this trap.

Many people in Kibera live in extreme poverty and struggle to feed themselves or their children. Essentially, they do what they have to to survive. Sanitary pads cost about 50 cents, and women and girls often can’t afford to pay this so go without them (using cloth or tissue) or resort to extreme measures to get them.

Cynthia says she is aware of girls as young as 13 who have engaged in prostitution, receiving less than 50 cents for having sex with a man. She says the girls’ parents are sometimes the ones who set it up.

Their parents might sell a local brew as their living. So a customer who is a drunk might talk to the mum and say they want the girl. The mum knows that she will get a tip, so she gives you free to the guy – she may be given 50 shillings (less than 50 cents) or $2 at most.

Cynthia says some girls feel they “don’t have a better alternative” than to engage in prostitution or marry young so they are no longer a financial burden on their family. Many people cannot afford school fees so the dropout rate is high; unemployment is also rife in the area.

“Some girls look for a guy who is able to buy them things, like a packet of pads to meet their basic needs … they just have so little money,” Cynthia explains. 

shutterstock_1351638137 File photo Shutterstock / Bulltus_casso Shutterstock / Bulltus_casso / Bulltus_casso

Hamza agrees, telling us that not being able to afford sanitary products is a huge problem for females in Kibera.

“A girl will need pads but knows her parents don’t have the money to get them, they’ll think, ‘I have to go and look for a man in order to sleep with him so I can get them’,” she says.

‘Girls are taught there is nothing valuable about them’ 

Michael Gitere, a project officer with Plan International Kenya, says poverty is “the genesis” of most transactional sex in Kibera and elsewhere.

We talk about how much money a girl may receive for sex, with Michael telling “It can be even less [than 50 cents], it depends on what her immediate need is at that moment. A girl is being taught there is nothing valuable about her, about her body.

Some men would tell them, ‘You were made for me so when I have sex with you and I give you 50 cents you should be saying thank you, I could have sex with you and give you nothing. So the fact that I give you 50 cents, please be appreciative.’ That’s how it works.

Michael says reproductive health is a sensitive issue and many girls don’t feel comfortable talking to their parents about needing pads.

IMG_3679 Michael Gitere, a project officer with Plan International Kenya Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Hamza agrees, saying she’s too embarrassed to talk to her father about the topic – but that he buys her pads without her asking. “He will buy pads and put them somewhere I can see them, but we don’t talk about it.”

So, how much are tampons? Both Hamza and Michael laugh at this question, saying they are too expensive to even talk about buying them. “Those are on another level, we can’t even have a discussion about it,” Michael tells us.

Period poverty is a huge problem worldwide. A 2018 study by Plan found that half of girls in Ireland aged 12-19 have experienced issues in paying for sanitary products.

In the Global South this figure is often higher, and many girls miss school because they can’t access pads or tampons. Plan, as well as other organisations and the government, provides girls in Kenya with sanitary products – but demand far outstrips supply. 

‘The neighbours are not there, go ahead and shout’  

Hamza has never engaged in transactional sex, but says many men expect it. She recalls an event from four years ago, telling us: “I never expected that to happen to me personally, but there was a person who I knew for a long time … I told him my phone was not working and he said he’d help me pick a new phone.”

Hamza says the man, who is related to her, invited her to his house. They had a discussion about phones and he said he’d buy her a new one. He told her, ‘I’ll get a phone, but I need something from you.’ When she asked what, he replied, ‘I need to have sex with you.’

Hamza says she couldn’t believe that a man she trusted was putting her in this position. She asked if she could leave and he said no. “So I said I’d shout and call the neighbours. He told me, ‘The neighbors are not there, go ahead and shout. Who will come?’ He was comfortable.”

IMG_3612 Hamza and her daughter, Aisha Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Hamza says she was panicking at this point but noticed a knife nearby. She grabbed it and threatened the man, recalling: “He thought that I was joking so I grabbed the knife and went like this (stabbing motion). He had to give way and I got out safely.”

Hamza was just 14 years old at the time. The man, who still lives nearby, was in his 40s at the time. When asked if she is scared of this man, Hamza says: “I can look after myself.”

Hamza has a young daughter, Aisha, who will soon turn two years old. Hamza was in a relationship with Aisha’s father for a couple of years but she says he became violent soon after she got pregnant. “He said he wasn’t the father and that I was with a lot of other boys … I was only ever with him.”

Hamza didn’t want to stay in a violent relationship so she left him. She knows other women may not feel able to leave a situation like this, so she mentors them and tries to put in them in touch with support services.

Hamza’s father has been a big support, providing for her and Aisha. But earlier this year he was let go as a security guard. He’s in his early 60s, nearing retirement, and has struggled to find another job.

IMG_3518 Belinda Atieno, who is studying hairdressing via the Girls Advocacy Alliance Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Hamza wants to be able to provide for the family and is doing a catering course through Plan International’s Girls Advocacy Alliance, an initiative that promotes gender equality and helps young women go back to education so they can be financially independent.

IMG_3449 Bridgit Injairu, who is learning tailoring via the Girls Advocacy Alliance Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Plan also raises awareness of women’s and children’s rights, and helps vulnerable people move out of poverty. 

Beaten with a belt 

Cynthia also studied via the Girls Advocacy Alliance. She too was in a violent relationship, saying her partner was controlling and cut her off from the outside world.

“He cut the strings around me … I lost friends and I was also losing my own family,” she recalls. Cynthia was an actor, but says her ex stopped her from performing because he feared she would meet another man and leave him. The pair have a daughter together, Rania, who is now three.

Cynthia says she wanted to leave the relationship but felt as though she couldn’t – her and Rania relied on her partner to provide for them and, over time, she had lost touch with loved ones.

It took me a year to leave because I was back and forth, back and forth. I thought, ‘If I go, who will support me? How will I survive?’ This guy is my everything, at one point I felt like he even gave me the air I needed to breathe.

On one occasion, Cynthia says her partner used a belt to beat her up. His cousins were in their house at the time, in another room. She says she didn’t want them to know what had happened so came out of the room “laughing, all smiles”, but they had heard the altercation. One of them told her, ‘One day you will be killed in this house’, she tells us. 

“At the end of the day, I knew this was not the kind of life I wanted.”

67280838_1224734717696392_7948345415181533184_n A stall in Kibera Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Cynthia moved back into her family home but struggled emotionally after the relationship ended. She received therapy through Plan, saying this was “very helpful”.

I had a lot of trauma, I have been through a lot of counselling during my healing process.

Cynthia says she’s “very, very hopeful” for the future and wants other women in similar situations to hear her story so they know they can get through it.

“I want to build a better life for me and my daughter, so I’m fighting so hard to reach my goals. I want my daughter to have a good life. I want us to have a comfortable life so we don’t have to struggle so much.”

Gang rape of children 

Through his work with Plan, Michael has helped many girls and women with who have needed emotional, medical and financial support. Every day, he hears another story – another attack, another rape, another life forever changed.

Despite working in this sector for several years, some cases were so harrowing that he himself needed counselling or to take time off. Gang rapes are common in Kibera, and children are sometimes the victims. 

Recalling a particularly horrific case that happened earlier this year, he tells us: “We have a case of a girl who was raped – because the toilet was not inside her house, the toilet was quite a distance from the house. So in the wee hours, at 3am, she wanted to go and pee. Before she could get to the toilet, she was ambushed.

“The girl was 13 years old. The men who were raping her, none of them were below 20. When they realised they couldn’t penetrate her, do you know what they did? They were already armed with razor blades and they tried cutting her private part. She had to be airlifted to hospital.”

The girl survived but was in hospital for some time.

shutterstock_686642866 File photo of Kibera Shutterstock / Authentic travel Shutterstock / Authentic travel / Authentic travel

The case sparked such outrage that the government promised to intervene in a bid to stop similar incidents. “That really angers me a lot, do we have to wait for these things to get to that level for the government to intervene?,” Michael asks. 

Plan is among the organisations which provide counselling and legal aid for victims of crime. However, many crimes go unreported. 

Victims blamed for being raped

Michael recalls another appalling gang rape case, where the men involved inserted a plastic bottle into a 16-year-old girl’s vagina. He says the victim didn’t tell anyone for two days because she feared being blamed for the attack.  

“Why would a girl be raped and keep quiet? There’s a reason why … she was afraid she would be blamed.

“Eventually we took her (to the doctor) and she had to undergo reconstructive surgery. Forty-eight hours. Can you imagine? The bleeding. They don’t even know how she survived, she should’ve died from the bleeding.

“That was one of the most damaging cases I’ve dealt with in my 10 years of gender work, I had to even ask for time off and ask for a counsellor because it affected me so much,” he notes. 

The girl didn’t report the rape. Michael says that she was too frightened to do so as she knows the men who did it.

Backstreet abortions 

Abortion is also quite common in Kibera, but there is still a stigma surrounding it and many girls get backstreet abortions from unlicensed practitioners. 

Many women and girls can’t afford to pay for an abortion – the common fee is about 10,000 Ksh (€90). That’s a lot of money for a girl who barely has food on the table.

“Unfortunately we have a lot of quack doctors, people who are not qualified, who capitalise on the vulnerability of these girls,” Michael tells us. 

A young woman who had been missing was recently found dead in Kibera. It was later discovered that she died after suffering complications from a botched termination. Michael says this isn’t the first time such an incident has occurred and likely won’t be the last. 

‘Heroes’ and ‘whores’ 

Michael facilitates workshops for men and boys, teaching them about women’s rights and issues such as consent. 

“At a forum the other day, one man told me, ‘These girls, they want to sex with us but they can’t tell us that they want sex. So we do the things they want (without asking). Girls want to have sex, it’s just that they’re different from us – they’ll never ask for it. So that’s why we initiate the process.’ 

“Can you imagine that kind of reasoning? The person is justifying why they do what they are doing. So they’re not remorseful, they’re not about to change,” Michael tells us. 

shutterstock_441760492 File photo of matatus in Kenya Shutterstock / Authentic travel Shutterstock / Authentic travel / Authentic travel

Sexual harassment is also common in the area, Michael says, noting that females are regularly groped in public. He’s aware of several incidents where men ejaculated on public transport while sitting next to a woman or girl.   

“A girl cannot get into a matatu (minibus) if she’s alone, something will happen to her. There’s a guy who will fondle, there will be someone who is going to make her uncomfortable,” he says.

If they want to get on a bus, the first thing they do is count the number of girls – if there are no girls, they wait for the next one. So that tells you how things are – even their movement is restricted, their freedom, their space, everything.

Michael says a man who sleeps with many women is seen as “a hero” in Kibera. But if a woman has more than one partner, she’s called derogatory names. ”They are referred to as loose, a prostitute, a whore.”

In Kenya, many people speak in Sheng – a mix of Swahili and English. “In Sheng, there are multiple names to describe women who are ‘loose’ but, guess what, Sheng doesn’t have a single name to describe a man who is ‘loose’,” Michael explains. 


Michael says, because of the type of work he does, he is “branded” and many people wrongly assume “something improper is going on” between him and the women he helps. “Some people call me a sponsor, they think I’m giving the girls money for sex,” he elaborates. 

“Most men are still convinced it should not be a man’s job. They say, ‘Why are you defending them? They are in their rightful place. It’s okay for them to be subjugated.’ So I have a hard time reasoning with them, persuading them, shifting minds.

Many people have grown thinking that a woman is a weaker and a lesser person, that they should be subjugated. So when you come with a different narrative and you tell them this is wrong, you face a lot of resistance.

Michael and his colleagues also receive threats from people who want them to drop certain cases they may be pursuing with the police or via the judicial system. 

IMG_3580 Nairobi Training Centre, where Girls Advocacy Alliance participants are trained Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Michael’s phone number is widely available – it’s on posters throughout the area, encouraging people who need help to get in touch. Others use it to threaten or abuse him. He says he’s so accustomed to this that it no longer bothers him. 

“I’m very passionate about what I’m doing, I’m seeking justice for these girls. Some police officers themselves have also told me I have to be careful … At times I’ve had to suspend my activities and give it a bit of time, then I resurface. So you try different approaches, but if I back off who will protect the girls?,” he asks.

“No one,” Hamza interjects.

This is the final article of a three-part series supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund. 

simon c

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