By Libby Plumb, Senior Communications Advisor, WaterAid America
Relaxed and talkative, a group of 15 or so girls from Kasasa Primary School in Kampala, Uganda, showed no embarassment when their teacher introduced me as someone who’d like to talk to them about their school’s menstrual hygiene program.
I think back to my own early teen years and imagine the mortified silence that would have fallen if someone had asked my classmates and me about our periods: it was something we dealt with, but not something we felt comfortable discussing openly.
The Kasasa girls—all between the ages of 11 and 14—shrugged off the notion of this being a taboo topic.
“It’s not bad to talk about periods, it’s normal.”
I wasn’t surprised by their openness. I’d just visited another classroom in the school where I had watched rehearsals for an inter-school drama and public speaking contest about sanitation that was organized by the international development organization WaterAid, and one of its local partners. I was impressed at how unphased a young female student was by delivering lines about menstruation in front of a male teacher and 30-40 of her fellow students, both boys and girls:
“Menstruation is the process by which a female excretes unused materials from the body though the vagina,” she confidently stated. “Health-wise, to manage this process, the woman needs to be conscious about her hygiene.”
Breaking the taboo
This school is one of many worldwide where WaterAid is helping to break the taboo around menstruation, not just among teenage girls, but also among male students and the girls’ families. At Kasasa School, menstrual hygiene is a core topic at the weekly hygiene club attended by all the school’s students.
As I talked with the girls, it was hard to keep up with all their quickfire comments. Interrupting each other, the students were keen to show off their knowledge as I asked questions about how they manage their periods.
“We learn to keep good hygiene when we are in the MPs [menstrual periods].”
“We should dispose of the pads privately in the latrines.”
“We should keep clean by bathing, washing our knickers [underwear] and cutting our fingernails.”
“We should change our pads at least three times a day.”
Menstrual hygiene facilities
Awareness is not enough. To put their learning into practice, teenage girls need access to sanitary pads, water, soap and somewhere to dispose of their personal hygiene products.
Alongside a new bathroom block, WaterAid helped Kasasa School build private, lockable, separate rooms for girls, where soap and water from a new rainwater collection tank are available, and pits where sanitary pads can be disposed of. Students are expected to provide their own pads, but spares are kept at school for those who are caught short, along with a spare uniform in case dresses are stained.
The teachers know that sanitary pads are unaffordable for some families. Instead, many girls use pieces of cloth, and teachers offer advice on keeping them clean by washing and drying them thoroughly, and ironing them to help kill bacteria.
Boosting school attendance
Evelyn Nakimbugwe, the school principal, explained how the provision of menstrual hygiene facilities was a turning point for reducing girls’ absenteeism.
“Before, some girls would use one pad for the whole day because there was no privacy. Some girls wouldn’t come to school at all when they had their period. They would miss four to six days of school a month. Now, they don’t miss school.”
Aspirations for the future
It’s abundantly clear that these girls are making the most of their education and there’s no holding them back. They’re bright, confident and articulate, and have ambitions to match. Their aspirations for the future include becoming accountants, judges, lawyers, journalists and Members of Parliament. I have no doubt they’ll succeed in life – the drive is certainly there.
Join the conversation on Twitter all month long using #MenstruationMatters.
Share your ideas about menstruation in the #PeriodTalk Twitter chat on Tuesday, May 20th at 10amET.
Cover Image c/o Lynn Johnson / Ripple Effect Images