One man’s quest to break menstruation taboo
Still largely a taboo topic, menstruation is talked about in hushed tones, and often, only by women. But one man, Denis Nzioka, is not afraid of talking about it, or even carrying pads to give out randomly to women who need them, either on the streets or entertainment spots such as bars, and even in church.
BY FAITH ONEYA
It’s just under 30 minutes to midnight, two days after Easter Sunday, when Denis Nzioka tweets a picture of his new stash of pads and tampons – ultra thin, maxi thick, unscented, super, long, normal … name it and he’s got it. The accompanying caption earns him rebuke and praise in equal measure, from both men and women. The tweet says:
“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 (sic) and to women in prisons. You can also stop me on the streets.”
“Monthly supply? Kwani you have grown a v*****?” types one of the responders., who happens to be a woman!
“This is creepy … Why would you be carrying pads just in case a woman needs them?? Stop being dragged into toxic feminism,” another adds.
“It has been terrible since that post,” says Denis, afterwards. “Terrible in the sense that I have been ridiculed and insulted, mostly by men, and some women. However, majority of the responses have been supportive.”
Having lived on the fringes of society as a queer activist, however, Denis has grown accustomed to being derided online.
“I am 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.
He emphasises that ultimately, we should be questioning the ‘language’ around menstruation. “Why do we refer to pads as ‘sanitary’? Are we further perpetuating the belief that women who menstruate – or the act of menstruation – is dirty, or filthy, and thus unhygienic, and in need of ‘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 poses.
Nation.co.ke sought to find out what drives Denis Nzioka.
So, who is Denis Nzioka?
Denis Nzioka is a sexual and gender minorities activist, consultant, researcher and journalist. His focus is on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, men who have sex with other men and sex workers in Kenya and Africa. He is based from Nairobi, Kenya. He has been involved in the human rights movement for LGBTIQ rights and advocated for sex workers rights as well, working with local and regional organisations. He strongly believes in equality of all sexes, freedom, and agency of individuals, expression, and choice. He grew up, and studied in Eastlands of Nairobi, and comes from a strong Christian family. His grandmother is his inspiration, and role model. “She is the most down-to-earth-saint”. If he is not on the streets shouting ‘gay rights are human rights’, or behind a desk tweeting on sexuality, he can be found raising his 4 month baby, Galilee Nzioka, and occasionally, gets inspired to cook. An avid reader, he is terribly shy and is single, and searching. He is a Catholic and you will find him at Mass everyday. He gyms regularly.
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. The girl immediately left for the bathroom to what I assumed was ‘check’ on herself. One of my female colleagues then came to inquire her and that is when she informed she what had happened. My colleague went to the shops, bought a pair of pads, and then gave to the girl telling her if she needed more, she can inform her. The girl ultimately came back to class later on – to a point I could notice that some of the older female students would giggle with her. 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?
It is said that two out of three women in Kenya cannot afford to have periods because they 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, coming from a radical queer, feminist and activist background, I believe candid conversations and sustained dialogue on taboo topics, especially on sex, and sexuality, 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.
How often do you have to restock? How soon do the pads run out? You mention monthly stock, but wondering if they are over every month
I buy the pads as soon as they run out. I factor a size-able supply of tampons and pads (enough to fit my carry-on bag, and maybe extras in my car) during my monthly shopping. I have pads al year through and usually re-stock anytime I run out or if I get a particular demand.
Why these particular pad/tampon brands? Or are you just winging it?
I have none, actually. My stock consists of standard pads, tampons, and panty liners. I usually go for what is most affordable – Always and Kotex are usually favorite. Other brands are OB, Cottons Regular, and Velvex. Some women prefer certain brands and I aspire to ensure they get them. Others are particular about getting unscented brands, others prefer scented ones. So, particular taste comes at play most times.
You added tampons this April. Before it was only pads. How come?
Pads are really the most requested I get – because traditionally, they have been the go-to pads for most women. Tampons are innovative and are used by most women who prefer a much smaller item to carry, and also use. Some women prefer exclusively tampons given their look, and easy to use factor. Pads are mostly for those with heavy flows, and because they are easily available, and affordable.
How many pads do you carry around and how much does it cost you?
I usually carry a pack or two of pads (packaged differently – 8, 10, 16, etc) and tampons I carry also two packs (usually 8, 16). I added panty liners as they are really popular these days also. Additionally, I have had women who request certain tablets to help with mensing cramps which cost like 10 bob. Others have requests for a roll of tissue or wipes also so I carry some, just in case. My last shopping of pads, tampons and panty liners – that I could carry comfortably in my bag – cost around 2,000 bob. I have a pack of baby wipers since I am raising a 4 month old boy!
Do women actually stop you in the streets to ask for pads?
Yes, I have been stopped on the streets several times by those who know I carry pads and need them. Last year, I “came out” online, and announced that I carry pads for anyone in need. This piqued the interest of people in my circle, who told their friends, and word got out. I also give away pads in bars, restaurants and hotels. I also buy pads and tampons to distribute to teenage girls’ homes, sometimes to women in prison or those admitted in mental health hospital units. We often forget women in such settings – yet their incarceration does not deprive them of their body and its processes.
A man carrying pads to give random women is not necessarily common. Some would consider this unmanly or even unAfrican … how do you handle the “stigma” of carrying pads and tampons with you all the time?
There is no stigma in a man carrying pads. I am thrilled to have them at hand. Though at first people say negative things or look at me differently, because they don’t understand the importance of what I do. Experience, however, has taught me that I’m onto something. Case in point, last year at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA). After passing through the metal detectors, on my way to check in, my bag was taken aside for further inspection. The male security officer checking my bag removed a perfume bottle, followed by a packet of Always pads. He and his female colleague looked at each other, then stared at me in disbelief.
“Do you use these?” they asked.
“No, I carry them for anyone in need,” I answered.
The female security guard smiled, pulled me aside and led me away towards the washrooms. There, she asked me for some pads.
“Unajua kupata hizi airport ni shida. Huku Duty Free hawaziuzi, na wakiuza ni expensive sana,” she confided.
Such moments remind me that there is no shame in carrying pads or tampons as a man. It actually makes you a better person because you are aware of a need for them, and you are willing to give them to anyone in need. And anyone can be in need of them, at any place and time.
Do you collaborate with other people who distribute pads to girls?
When I went public about giving pads to random strangers, I was contacted by several organisations and individuals who asked me to support their initiatives or to get involved in their outreaches to women and girls. The broader strategy is to make this bigger and to spark conversations that do away with the cloud of shame that hangs over menstruation, while providing women and girls with the supplies and information they need. The government promised free pads to girls, but this has not fully been implemented … Every home, school and church should have free pads available all the time. By providing information, and commodities, we can be dealing with the stigma associated with menstruation
What’s your bigger picture?
All I want is to spark conversations on menstruation (which is a natural process), access to pads and other sexual and reproductive health commodities, body integrity, choice, agency and autonomy, and conversations on how men can be involved (by carrying a few tampons, for instance). Men have to get involved because they are the originators and perpetrators of legislative, policy and social frameworks that deny legal gender recognition, perpetuate violence, stigma, discrimination and exclude women and girls, and other non hetero-normative persons, and inevitably, men themselves.
What’s one of the most memorable moments since you started doing this?
One Sunday, mid last year, when I was in church – I got to a Catholic church near home, I went to use the lavatory. The gents and the ladies are opposite each other. Walking over to the gents, I found women huddled outside their stall, speaking in low tones. I didn’t think much of it since they seemed to be waiting for someone to leave the stall, until I overheard one say “Sasa tutatoa pads wapi hapa (Can we really get pads here – in church)?” I walked over to them, introduced myself and said, “I couldn’t help overhearing that you need pads,” then reached into my bag, took out three pads and handed them over to one of the women. They were visibly shocked, but thanked me as I left. There have been many such instances.
You’re quite vocal on LGBTIQ rights. Is there any connection between that and your pad initiative?
During the 10 years I have advocated for LGBTIQ rights, I have interacted with people who have faced worse stigma, socially, politically and in other spheres, than discrimination based on sexuality. I come from a space where there is always a minority within a minority, and I’ve learnt that we are all minorities. Granted, there are several similarities (tongue-in-cheek) between LGBTIQ rights and menstruation. For one, menstruation like sexual orientation and gender identity, are both natural – they are part of who we are as humans.
Secondly, like sexuality, there is a shame and silence that surrounds menstruation. If we talk about it, we do so in passing and in discomfort, eager to move on swiftly to another topic.
Third, there is little information or access to commodities that relate to LGBTIQ rights or menstruation – be it information, or actual preventive commodities. Similarly, women and girls, as do LGBTIQ persons, are constantly faced with hetero-normative, patriarchal, capitalist and other interlocking systems of oppression, that continue to put them down, silence them and shame them for who they are, among other injustices.
I do not consider myself as a gay activist per se – but for political reasons, I identify as gay. I am a human rights activist for all. The way I defend the right of gay men to access healthcare, is the same way I will defend the rights of girls to access contraception and other sexual and reproductive health services. I will defend the rights of differently-abled persons to have access to buildings through requisite modifications, the same way I will join a nomadic community to agitate for access to their land, and free water. I will join marches against rising food prices or extra-judicial killings. An activist does not have the privilege of an a-la-carte menu but should, as much as possible; defend the full buffet of human rights.
To be honest, I do very little, but it is the little that we all do that will add up to the changes we want to see. I did not invent the wheel by carrying tampons as a man. I am sure there are many unspoken others before me, who have been doing it unashamedly. I am part of society with all its flaws and foibles, but I can be part of the change I want to see, by sparking a conversation on menstruation, gay rights, albinism, disability, sex, condoms, or any other issue. That’s the first step. Change is gradual and painful. I am glad to be on the right side of history on this one, though.