When you find Abdullahi Bulle at his place of work in Nairobi, he is surrounded by books and is usually busy engaging a boda boda rider who has come to deliver merchandise to his clients.
Something in his stall at Moi Avenue looks misplaced––At the entrance, the first thing that catches your attention is a stack of well-arranged pads and an sign written “Get a free sanitary pad here today”.
Bulle has been distributing free sanitary towels in his stall at Moi Avenue since February this year. Any woman in distress can simply walk in, get one or two packets for the month and walk away, no questions asked.
“I started this project this year when I met two students who were going back to school. One of the students was a boy and the other a girl and they were struggling to carry heavy luggage along Haille Selassie Avenue. I offered to pay a trolley to carry the load for them up to Bus station and out of curiosity I asked why they could not spare Sh50 to pay someone to help them. The girl told me is prefers to save the money to buy sanitary towels because her family is not well off. That night I thought to myself that there must be some girls who did not have money to buy pads. The next day I bought some and started distributing them for free,” he said. Most the time he buys the pads using his own money but sometimes he gets donors. He also distributes the pads through organisations that reach out to him.
In June he distributed over 400 pads through organisations in Kisumu, Kibera, Wajir, Mombasa, Mathare and Tana River. A box costs a total of Sh1,900. Each month, at least one woman walks in his stall every day for a pad.
“There are three or four women outside the Central Business District who come here every month to pick pads, so I usually given them three or four packets. Some of them are are not working so coming town is a problem. I remember two girls who walked all the way from Kibera to come and pick free pads. Another woman who was laid off in 2018 and lives with her brother came in this month for pads and I gave her enough to last for two months,” he said.
Bulle, who holds a Masters degree in Strategic Management from United States International University Africa (USIU), believes that all facilities should set aside shelves where they offer sanitary pads for free as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility. Bulle who runs, an online shop, Nuria Kenya where he sells an assortment of goods including books, Macbooks, I-phones and clothes, dismisses the notion that the project is his way of attracting more clientele.
“If it was meant to promote my business, I would have branded the pads, but that is not the case. I would say this is my CSR project, just like the way other businesses come up with initiatives to give back to society,” he said.
Dressed in a multi-coloured shirt, greyish jumper and blue jeans, Bulle is an antithesis of a gender activist and he admits that most people were surprised when he started the project given the fact that he is a muslim man.
“I remember a woman posted a disturbing tweet claiming that I was looking for “ fertile women”. I do not know what she meant. I choose to ignore it because this project is very close to my heart,” he said.
To Bulle the sex-for-pads narrative, where girls offer sexual favours in return for pads, has cast men in bad light and it is time they stood up to be counted and end stigma surrounding menstruation.
“When a vulnerable and naïve girl is forced to engage in sex with a man in order to get pads they judge the world as cruel and evil. If we distribute pads for free no man will every use it to gain favour or punish a woman and we will end the sex-for-pads business,” he said.
A study on Menstrual Health in Kenya funded by the Bill and Melinda Gate Foundation and conducted by FSG, a consultancy firm, showed that in urban primary schools at least 10 per cent of girls experienced early periods. Moreover, 54 per cent of girls who underwent early menses experienced diminished academic performance compared to girls who start their period at the right age. The study established that in rural Western Kenya, two-thirds of girls and young women aged 13–29 using sanitary pads reported receiving them from sexual partners. “There was a higher likelihood of receiving pads if respondents had more than one sexual partner, placing girls at increased risk of HIV or unwanted pregnancy,” the study showed.