Why don’t many Ugandan girls go to school? Is it because they have no books or uniforms? Or they have to trek long distances? The answers to these questions might be affirmative. But that is not all. There is another, rarely talked about problem that can bring girls’ education, social status to a screeching halt: the simple lack of a sanitary towel when she has her period.
Phionah Kizza has been working with AFRIpads, a social enterprise in Uganda that manufactures and sells washable cloth, sanitary pads, for two years now as a supervisor in the production facility. During the commemoration of World Population Day by Reach A Hand, Uganda in Kawempe, a slum in Kampala city, she had an opportunity to show adolescent girls and women who were at the event how to use these reusable pads. The event was commemorated in partnership with UNFPA under the theme Harnessing Uganda’s Demographic Dividend: Invest in Teenage Girls with the emphasis on bringing services and information to these young girls using the hashtag #LetGirlsBeGirls on social media.
Ordinarily, one would think that girls who live in the city would have access to sanitary pads but the high volume of increased traffic at the AFRIpads stall every time Phionah was demonstrating how to use the pads proved otherwise. No wonder the slum is a hotspot for sexual reproductive health challenges. One would attribute these challenges as stated in HIV and AIDS Uganda Country Progress Report 2013 to the high high school dropout rate among girls in these slum areas. If this is the case in a city suburb, one can only imagine what the situation looks like in Kanungu, which is over 400 kilometers from the city where access to services and education is extremely limited.
When discussing reusable pads, common questions that come up are: “Is it clean?” and “Will it leak?” Although, reusable pads may be a tad bulkier, the occasional bulk is infinitely better than a lifetime of health problems. “With the right maintenance, reusable products are just as sanitary as disposable ones,” Phionah explains to the girls.
The reusable sanitary pads called So Sure, are cheaper compared to the non-reusable pads which are more common. The affordability of the pad enables women and girls in Uganda to buy in smaller quantities and “build” the kit that meets their own budget and personal menstrual hygiene needs.
“Sometimes girls in such a slum setting are forced to sleep with men at an early age because they think they [men] can provide the necessities they need such as sanitary pads, which are a bit expensive and thus lead to teenage pregnancies and HIV/AIDS infections.” Phionah explains.
In Uganda’s poor and rural communities, girls who are menstruating usually can’t afford sanitary towels. Many reports have shown that girls who cannot afford sanitary towels instead use old rags. Worse, some will use unhygienic substances like sand, sawdust, leaves or ash. No matter what they use as sanitary material, it’s very likely they will choose to skip school during their periods, leading them to eventually drop out completely.
Menstruation blood is every teenage girl’s worst nightmare. You’re standing in front of your class or friends when giggling erupts from the back and everyone’s pointing at your behind. With despair, you realize your sanitary pad has leaked and an embarrassing bloody patch has appeared on your dress.
“Most girls who are not in school lack knowledge and information about affordable alternatives to sanitary pads, which has cost too many girls an education and affected her social status yet this can all be avoided if they were aware of how cheap these products really are.” Phionah explained.
Investing in girls does not mean only looking at those who are in school but those also out in communities. Many girls in communities are vulnerable and don’t know how to access affordable feminine hygiene products.
Through engaging with communities like our organization, Reach A Hand, and our partners, UNFPA, AFRIpads, Naguru Teenage Center, KCCA, KiBo Foundation, AFFCAD, on World Population Day, we were able to debunk myths and misconceptions surrounding menstrual hygiene and other reproductive health challenges affecting girls. Our efforts can lead to improved sanitation and educational retention for girls while increasing their access to information as well as creating employment opportunities for adolescent girls who are currently not in school.
Despite the progress that has been made, there is still much more work to be done. Prioritizing female health in Uganda is long overdue. Every teenage girl should have access to feminine hygiene products in order to fully participate and contribute to national development.