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‘65% of females’ in Kenyan slum traded sex for sanitary pads? Unicef & UK newspaper pull stat from thin air

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  • An article in the UK’s Independent newspaper said new Unicef research had found 65% of females in the densely populated Kibera slum had traded sex for sanitary pads.

  • Unicef could not back claim up with any research, and later said the research was not theirs.

  • An expert on “period poverty” in Kenyan slums said her research had found no such statistic on females trading sex for pads.

Seven in 10 females in Nairobi’s Kibera slum have traded sex for sanitary pads, a British online newspaper claimed in a September 2018 article.

“New exclusive research by Unicef found 65% of females in the Kibera slum - an area of the capital of Nairobi which is the largest urban slum in Africa - had traded sex for sanitary pads,” wrote the Independent.

(Note: The publication later changed its description of Kibera to “one of the largest urban slums in Africa”.)   

The Independent said “Kenyan girls” were “forced” into this trade by “period poverty” – described as a lack of money to buy sanitary products – and by shame, stigma and public health misinformation.

None of the studies were on Kibera

Africa Check contacted Unicef for the source of the 65% figure and were told it came from “several studies”.

Ariana Youn, who focuses on advocacy for the UN agency, shared links to two “primary reports”, adding that a third would be provided. (Note: Africa Check followed up repeatedly on this. We will update this report should we get it.)

But the two studies focused on western Kenya, not Kibera. And Unicef did not have any role in either of them, Dr Penelope Phillips-Howard, a public health epidemiologist at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine who was involved in their research, told Africa Check.

One of the studies found that one in 10, or 10%, of 15-year-old girls admitted to having transactional sex to get money for pads, Phillips-Howard said. But of the 3,418 women aged 13 to 29 surveyed overall, only 1.3% said they had done this.

(Note: The Independent later added the 10% figure to its story: “Unicef found 10% of young adolescent girls admitted to having transactional sex for pads in western Kenya.” The original article can be found here. Africa Check has contacted the author about the changes but we are yet to get a response.)    

The other study looked at how menstrual hygiene affected the school attendance and reproductive health of 644 girls aged 14 to 16 in western Kenya. It did not mention sex for sanitary pads at all.

Unicef: The number is ‘neither new nor ours’

In a subsequent call, Unicef told Africa Check that the research used in the Independent’s article was “neither new nor exclusive nor ours”.

We also found the 65% figure in a May 2018 op-ed article jointly authored by Kenya’s health minister Sicily Kariuki and Unicef Kenya representative Werner Schultink.

Here it was attributed to “2011” research by the Forum for African Women Educationists, which campaigns for the education of girls and women.

But the Nairobi-headquartered organisation had not done such a study, spokesperson Juliet Kimotho told Africa Check.

Statistic is ‘way too high’

Dr Stella Chebii focuses on gender and communication at Kenya’s Moi University. She has researched period poverty in Kenyan slums, including Kibera.

She told Africa Check the Independent’s statistics “are way too high”. Her work did find that not enough sanitary towels were available to girls in Kibera, “but not such statistics on trading sex for sanitary towels”.

“There is a possibility that girls could receive money in exchange for sex which ends being used to buy items that include sanitary towels, but the motive to exchange money for sex in most cases is not motivated by the lack of sanitary towels,” Chebii said.

Stigma on menstruation also meant such an exchange would be difficult as women and girls would have to hide that they were on their period, she added.

Chebii said if it were true that such a high share of females traded sex for pads, it would be a significant setback to the efforts by many to improve the lives of women and girls. The issue, she said, was not just biological but social.

Kenya’s plan to provide pads to girls gaining pace

Since 2012 the Kenyan government has made providing sanitary pads to adolescent girls enrolled in school a priority, Dr Stella Chebii, a Moi University lecturer who has researched menstruation in adolescent girls, told Africa Check.

Pads for school-going girls is provided for in law, helping increase access to menstrual products, especially for girls at public schools in informal settlements and marginalised rural areas.

The initiative has largely taken off, Chebii said.

Governors’ wives in the 47 counties also campaign for this, while schools have formed menstrual clubs and mentorship programmes for clubs.

Conclusion:  No research supports Independent and Unicef claim that 65% of Kibera females trade sex for sanitary pads.

The UK-based Independent newspaper said “new exclusive research by Unicef” had found 65% of females in Nairobi’s Kibera slum had traded sex for sanitary pads.

Unicef told Africa Check that the research used in the Independent’s article was “neither new nor exclusive nor ours”.

An expert said that while sanitary pads were in short supply in Kibera, no research showed that women and girls traded sex for them. Transactional sex may take place, but not specifically to buy menstrual pads. And stigma would make it difficult for females to trade sex during their periods.

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