Irise International works to support the education and empowerment of women and girls in East Africa through addressing the neglected issue of menstrual hygiene management. In this series of blogs, we look at how menstrual hygiene can affect all girls in a range of cultures and environments. In this blog, Noni Bryson, an Irise Volunteer, looks at our work in Uganda and the importance of breaking the period taboo. To find out more about Irise please visit www.irise.org.uk.
There comes a day for every girl when everything will change. The day they start their period. For some this will be a joyful change, they have officially become a woman, but for others it can be unnerving. Adjusting to this change in the UK can be difficult, such as making sure you have enough tampons or pads for a full day at school or the worry of people teasing you. For many girls in Uganda, this day often brings fear of illness and stops them from making the most of their school experience. Across East Africa, a lack of understanding of Menstrual Health and inability to afford sanitary products is significantly affecting the gender gap. Everything will change for these girls when they start their period, in a much more serious way; they may regularly miss school, fail exams and even drop out of education all together.
Without the correct education, many girls have a serious lack of understanding about menstruation and so fear their periods each month. In an education class provided by Irise, one girl voiced the worry of many. “I have not started my periods and my mother took me to the witch doctor and nothing has changed. What should I do? Please help me.” This type of concern is not uncommon. In some regions in Uganda, women are not allowed to plant groundnuts during menstruation for fear that they will ruin the crop. Irise teaches girls the biology of the reproductive system, explaining the monthly cycle to dispel the myths surrounding menstruation. These classes also cover the range of normality for girls going through puberty to ease concerns and allow them to ask questions which may have been worrying them.
As periods are such a taboo subject in Uganda, girls often avoid talking to their mothers about their menstruation; the only information they have will come from school friends. Girls choose not to ask teachers, as they are often intimidated by them, and so the information they receive is regularly flawed, causing fear of their periods before they even start menstruating.
Although these experiences have come to light in Uganda through Irise’s research, there is a worldwide taboo surrounding the topic of menstruation, even in countries thought to be the most developed. Many people are uncomfortable talking about periods, let alone discussing how this can hold women back, and without an open line of communication, we are unable to work towards something better. In parts of India, women are banned from entering the kitchen when they are menstruating, as it is believed they could make the food go bad. In Tanzania, some people believe if another person sees a menstrual cloth, they will be cursed. In most countries, sanitary products are taxed as luxury items, despite their necessity each month.
With more education sessions being run in schools across Uganda, Irise is helping girls feel the confidence they need to stay in school and succeed academically. After education sessions in Busingye, Uganda, one school girl told Irise “I used to think that [menstruation] is just my personal problem alone, but I got to know that everyone gets periods in different ways”. As well as the biological aspect of the lessons, Irise also aims to build self-esteem and encourage girls that they should not feel ashamed about the natural process. One school girl went on to say “I no longer fear when I am in class because I know it’s normal for every girl”.
Although there is a long way to go to ensure that girls in schools in Uganda have access to the necessary facilities such as somewhere safe and clean to change their sanitary pads and wash themselves, Irise is well on the way to making a difference. And with this, we will be closer to gender equality, allowing both boys and girls an equal opportunity to achieve their full potential. As Maya Angelou wisely put it: “ Equal rights, fair play, justice, are all like the air: we all have it, or none of us has it. That is the truth of it”
Many girls in Uganda are unable to access sanitary products, or education about their menstrual health. Irise is changing this! To find out more about the work Irise does, or donate this Christmas, please visit www.irise.org.uk.
The content of this blog may contain personal views which are not the views of Irise International unless specifically stated. This blog is part of a series of blogs to promote awareness of menstrual health and gender equality.
Photo Credit: Irise International