Teen’s Death Sparks Gripping Film — and Hope

The death of teenager Jackline Chepngeno sparked outrage in Kenya. Now, a documentary on her death and what happened next is picking up awards at film festivals.
— By Amy Fallon, reporting from Kampala, Uganda

Jackline Chepngeno went to primary school one day in September 2019 in Kabiangek, southwest Kenya. But it would be “a day unlike any other,” as a new documentary on the 14-year-old’s story, which made headlines around the world, narrates. A harrowing one.

Chepngeno’s period came unexpectedly in the middle of her English class. Like 65% of girls in the east African country, she was unable to afford sanitary pads. Hours later, after allegedly being period-shamed by her teacher, the teen took her own life. But the story is complicated.

“There’s such global talk and a movement around period poverty and breaking the shame around menstruation at the moment,” says Amélie Truffert, the producer of A Journey with a Hope. The documentary tells the story about Chepngeno’s death, focusing on the stigma related to menstruation and what happens when girls don’t have access to period products.

“It’s a really super hot topic, so it feels like it’s the perfect time for this documentary to be seen,” the South Africa-based director and producer says. At least 500 million women and girls around the world lack access to the facilities they need to manage their periods, according to the World Bank.

The 44-minute documentary, which is Truffert’s first, is a confronting, uncomfortable watch at times — particularly the interviews with Chepngeno’s teacher. There was no proper research phase, Truffert explains. “We learnt as we started talking to the family,” she says. “It snowballed from there — from chats with menstrual health experts, young girls who had gone through similar incidents of period shaming et cetera.”

‘So shaken, she could not stand’

Viewers are first introduced to Chepngeno by her grandmother, Rachel, as “very strong and hardworking.”

Jackline “was the first to wake up in the family,” Rachel says (via subtitles), explaining that they would send Chepngeno to the flour mill to work, and to pick tea on weekends. But on that fateful day when Chepngeno unexpectedly got her period in class, she was reportedly caned by Jennifer Chemutai, an allegation the teacher denies on camera.

The teen was “so shaken she could not stand” after the incident, viewers learn.

Rachel recounts that after arriving home crying, having been told that her clothes were dirty, Chepengo was given clean clothes and her mother told her she could return to school after lunch. But soon after, Chepengo went missing from home. Her body was discovered a few hours later.

“We heard screams … we assumed it was drunks fighting,” Rachel recalls in the film. “I told them not to remove Jackline’s body until the teacher came so that they could see how she reacted to the morning’s events,” says Rachel.

Chepngeno’s death sent “shockwaves” and “grief” through the community, viewers learn, and there was a lot of anger directed at Chemutai. Yet, when asked if she feels she bears any responsibility for the teen’s death, she says no. She has never apologized to Chepngeno’s family, according to the film. According to a 2019 Kenyan news report, Chemutai was exonerated by the government.

French national Truffert and her British partner, co-director and co-producer, Paul Drawbridge, were researching mental health in Kenya when they heard about Chepngeno’s story. They didn’t deliberately set out to make the film, Truffert says. However, they have received a lot of feedback about it, particularly about the teacher’s role. “It’s really conflicting, because on one hand you think she was an adult responsible for a child and she let that child down but it’s so easy to say ‘oh it’s all her fault,’” says Truffert. “Sure, she played a part in what happened, but actually she’s just part of this bigger system of period shaming and … maybe the same thing happened to her, so she’s just repeating that cycle.”

Kenya-based Muna Mohamed, the Regional Partnerships and Business Development Manager at AFRIPads, features in the film. Uganda-based AFRIPads is the top social enterprise manufacturer of reusable sanitary pads in the world. Mohamed works to help educate girls around menstruation myths. In the film, the 29-year-old wipes away tears during an interview. “It’s not HIV/AIDS that she has, it’s periods — come on guys. This is a normal biological process.” Mohamed continues: “If I was Jackline, I would have done the same thing.”

Mohamed tells OZY, “I’ve actually found it quite hard to watch the entire film.” She talks about not having sanitary pads at one point in her life because she faced gender-based violence and mental health problems in her home. Looking at her own past situation as an educated woman without the financial means to purchase sanitary pads, she asks: “What about women or girls who are actually living in serious poverty?”

She says that men and boys must also be part of the solution. A Journey with a Hope also shows male educators from organization The Cup, who viewers are told are “curious and want to get involved in these discussions to learn more” about menstruation. Mohamed says that by having men and boys involved, “we may address a variety of “inter-connected problems” to period poverty, “such as femicide, teenage pregnancies, gender-based violence, and mental health.”

Changing the way periods are seen n May 2020, Kenya became the first African country to put in place a Menstrual Hygiene Policy, viewers are told at the end of the film. The aim of this is to help guarantee that all women and girls in Kenya can manage their periods hygienically and without stigma. This includes access to proper information on menstrual health, along with products, services and facilities, and the right to safely dispose of menstrual waste.

The audience is also told at the end that Chepngeno’s mother, Beatrice, and grandmother are now distributing pads to local schools. “If there’s a positive message that can come from this story it’s that it’s changed the way that they’ve looked at periods,” says Truffert.

Now pursuing a masters in global health so she can specialize in menstruation, Truffert says it’s important that “as many young girls” as possible see the film. “It could really help some young girls normalize periods and start to break down the cycle of shame that comes from menstruation,” she says. “We are still learning and researching today, even though the film is finished.”

And it is getting worldwide recognition.

A Journey with a Hope was a finalist in the New York International Women’s Film Festival (NIFF), won Best Women’s Film at the Bright Film Festival, and recently won the Best Human Rights Film at the Vancouver Independent Film Festival.

It will be shown at the closing ceremony of the Under Our Skin International Film Festival on Human Rights in Nairobi, Kenya. The film “tackles the topic of menstrual health shaming, which is vital to provoke dialogues around stigma faced by young girls and women, and to promote the enhancement of the rights of women and girls”, says Sarah Mpapuluu, the festival’s general coordinator.

The documentary shows “just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the reality on the ground,” says Mohamed. “Thousands of girls and women are suffering from period poverty in Kenya and all around the world, and we need governments to have compulsory budgets for sanitary pads.”

The film ends with the message: "Jackline's last walk home is a journey without hope, a rallying cry for us all. We must hope for change and then we must make it happen."

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