Why is Menstruation Still Holding Girls Back?

In Uganda, adolescent girls and young women in inadequately-served and rural communities miss up to eight days of study each school term because they are on their periods. This is due to lack of washrooms, lack of sanitary pads and bullying by peers with in and out of school settings. Research conducted by various civil society organisations shows that on average girls miss up to 11% of the total learning days in a school calendar year.

This school absence rate is hard for adolescent girls and young women to make up for and partly accounts for many adolescent girls and young women dropping out of high school in rural and inadequately served communities.

At Peer To Peer Uganda (PEERU), we find that most of the adolescent girls and young girls we talk to during our school outreaches use pieces of cloth – called ‘kitenge‘ in Uganda – which they get from their mothers or they use their own old pieces. Others improvise with cloth nappies used by their younger siblings. Some girls even use dry leaves to try to soak up the blood in emergency situations.

Not only are these girls dealing with a lack of materials, they are also stigmatised by cultural attitudes that regard menstruating women and girls as being unhygienic or dirty. Many girls grow up dreading their periods because of the social stigma associated with menstruation, as well as the lack of services and facilities to help them.

“I used to use cloths that I would cut from my old T-shirts to keep the blood from staining my dresses, but they were not enough and blood would still stain my clothes,” said Joan, a 14-year-old student at St. Noa Kiyinda Primary School in Mityana. “Boys used to laugh at me and I eventually simply stayed home whenever my periods started.”

After a visit by Peer To Peer Uganda (PEERU), and a sensitization and awareness campaign called Know your Body at her school, Joan said:

“Now I don’t get ashamed or embarrassed when I get my periods,” she says. “I even attend classes during my periods and nobody notices. Even boys at school no longer laugh at me like they used to do.”

Milly, who is from Nakasongola – a district in Central Uganda – had to repeat a class for another year at Zengebe Primary School after she missed her final exams because of her period.

“When I started menstruating, I went through many difficult days,” she says. “I could not get myself any materials to use to stop myself from soiling my clothes. It was better for me to stay at home rather than go through that shame at school.”

There are many private companies selling disposable sanitary pads in Uganda, but they are only sold in supermarkets in towns and don’t reach rural areas. A number of social enterprises have emerged to address the issue, like Afripads, making re-useable menstrual kits, and Makapads, making disposal pads out of paper waste. The cost of their products is generally lower than the imported disposable pads, but they are still relatively expensive and their outreach to rural areas is very limited, since local manufacturers often lack financial support to increase production to satisfy the demand.

To fill the gap, Peer To Peer Uganda (PEERU), with support from Community Health Alliance Uganda and the International HIV/AIDS Alliance is implementing the Know Your Body Campaign under the READY Teens Project, to teach adolescent girls, young girls and their parents on menstrual hygiene, management and body change.

We also involve the wider community to address cultural taboos around and myths that hinder discussions on menstruation. Now, schools in Mityana, Luwero and Nakasongola – both secondary and primary – are engaged through the campaign which is to run till 2019 as we further engage adolescent peers through school health clubs, focused group discussions and puppetry activations. 

There is still a great need to address the issues adolescent girls and young women face holistically, and this includes advocating for the provision of affordable solutions for every girl in every school as a basic right.

Ugandan female parliamentarians under the leadership of the Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga are leading a campaign asking the government to provide adequate washrooms and to drop taxes on sanitary pads. The Ugandan Constitution includes a pledge to “provide the facilities and opportunities necessary to enhance the welfare of women to enable them realise their full potential and advancement”. Sanitary towels and bathrooms seem a small price to pay for helping adolescent girls and young women to access a complete education.

Bwire Moses is Founder and Team Leader at Peer To Peer Uganda (PEERU). Follow them on Facebook & Twitter.

Read more blog posts about reusable sanitary products on Girls’ Globe. 

Sugar Daddies are Definitely NOT Sweet

The situation is all too common…a young girl is looking to fill a void left by an absent or abusive father, and an older man seizes the opportunity to offer comfort and gifts – at a price. The term ‘Sugar Daddy’ is an awfully sweet-sounding way to refer to men who leverage their power and wealth to bait young girls into a sexual trap.

In Lesotho (southern Africa), sugar daddies are called ‘blessers’. As girls’ bodies start to change in early adolescence, older men take notice. The girls, often orphans with no emotional support, crave the attention and feel that it is cool to have an older man show interest in them. A mother from Lesotho explains, “we find that for some girls who have grown up without a father, these sugar daddies provide something like a ‘fatherly love’, but really they are exploiting them.”

Blessers initiate relationships by buying girls presents ranging from small trinkets to new clothing to cell phones. At first the gifts are given with sweet words and compliments and the girls are thrilled to have new, luxury items. But before long, blessers are asking for favours in return and they only have one thing in mind.

All relationships between girls and blessers are sexual in nature. Many girls become pregnant, which typically terminates the relationship because blessers will not take responsibility for impregnating the girls. The blesser returns to his wife and children, while the girl is left with the shame of telling her elders that she had a relationship with a man the age of her father.

Perhaps even more devastating than pregnancy, many girls contract HIV as a result of their blesser relationships. These men typically know their status yet they convince girls that having sex with a condom is a bad idea (some men go so far as to say that condoms cause kidney disease in men – a claim with no truth whatsoever). The girls have no defence and no retribution; their shame keeps them from asking for help.

Shocking as it is, some girls intentionally seek out blessers, entering into relationships with a list of goods they hope to secure. These girls know that this behaviour is dangerous, yet the appeal of accessing nice items is too strong to resist. Most girls do not yet recognize that the gifts are not worth the cost of what they are required to give up. It often takes hindsight for the girls to recognize that they do not really want to be in a relationship with a blesser. Many wish they could return to childhood and forget the adult world they abruptly entered.

Ending a relationship between a blesser and a girl is at least as unsavoury as the relationship itself. Most girls have no say whatsoever, and may even be further victimized for trying to end things. One girl shared, “my friend is trying to end her involvement with a sugar daddy and now he wants to kill her. She has changed her phone number too – he is stalking her.”

Some parents of adolescent girls try to warn their daughters of the risks associated with sugar daddies; others encourage it. Regardless, the girls are often more interested in what their peers are up to rather than listening to their parents. For parents with daughters who board at school, the concern is even worse. One mother explains:

“My daughter normally uses public [transportation] to go home. One day, I called her to check in and I heard men’s voices in the background. I started to panic. It was the case that they were just men near the bus, but of course I was so worried that maybe a man had offered her a ride in his car.”

The prevalence of sugar daddy relationships is difficult to determine since both the girls and the blessers go to great efforts to keep their relationships a secret – girls because of the shame, blessers because of the risk to their marriages and family relationships. What we do know for certain is that these relationships are too common. In any high school, it would not be difficult to find several girls who sneak off to meet their blessers after school.

Sugar daddies, as the adults in the relationships, need to take responsibility for protecting rather than preying on young girls. These relationships are dangerous and harmful, often leading to a lifetime of trauma. The good news is that this problem is relatively straightforward to address – men need to stop engaging in sexual relationships with young girls!

Balancing Passion for Education with Family Responsibilities

Education empowers girls with confidence and independence.  It provides girls with a path out of poverty, and it gives girls hope for a better life. Education is a silver bullet for empowering girls.  Education is the ANSWER.

But girls need access to education.  The primary barriers preventing girls’ access to education are lack of schools, distance to schools, conflict, hunger and poor nutrition, school fees, disabilities, and being the ‘wrong’ gender.

Even when girls have access, they are pulled out of school to help care for their families. They may be passionate about achieving an education, but they must balance that passion with family responsibilities.

Photo credit: Educational Empowerment

Ja Seng Mai understands this balancing act. Ja Seng Mai, 19 years old, is the eldest of five children, living in Myitkyina, Kachin State, Myanmar.

Even though I want to study and learn different subjects and attend the trainings like my other friends, my mom cannot afford to support all of us. Sometimes I feel angry and complain about my life and think why I can’t be like other people.”

Ja Seng Mai wants to be a good daughter and help her mom and siblings. So she works as a sales girl at the local Padonmar Store. In the evenings and weekends, she studies university courses online. She is now in her third year towards a zoology degree. However, these distance learning programs do not provide sufficient qualifications to obtain professional careers.

Recently, Ja Seng Mai was accepted into an exciting new program – Tech Age Girls (TAG). TAG is being implemented in Myanmar by IREX in partnership with Myanmar Book Aid and Preservation Foundation. Ja Seng Mai is one of 5 girls, ages 16-20, in Myitkyina to be selected to learn digital skills and leadership skills. During this time Ja Seng Mai will continue her sales job during the weekdays to help support her family.

The program runs for one year. During the first phase of 6 months, girls learn coding and data security skills. At that point, 3 of the girls are selected to move on to Phase 2 to learn online content skills and connect with female mentors. Finally, one girl is selected to advance to Phase 3 to attend basic ICT (information and communication technology) skills training. This finalist then conducts a community project using her newly developed skills.

By 2020, 85-90% of new jobs in Myanmar will require digital skills. Ja Seng Mai is obtaining valuable marketable skills to enable her to obtain a professional job. Her dedication to a pursuit of education is paying off for her.

Ja Seng Mai says, “I feel happy that I can help my mom to earn money.” At the same time, Ja Seng Mai is VERY happy to learn digital skills through the TAG program. She works hard to balance these two important priorities in her life.

ALL girls deserve access to education.

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EE empowers women and girls in SE Asia through education and equal opportunity, with a vision of improving socio-economic opportunity and creating gender parity. Please visit us at www.educationalempowerment.org and follow us on Facebook, Twitter @EEmpower, and on Instagram.

What Let Girls Learn Has Taught Me

Michelle Obama smells amazing. When she wrapped her arms around me for a hug after speaking on her Let Girls Learn initiative, the first thing I thought was holy shit Michelle Obama is giving me a hug, and secondly, wow she smells so good.

It was a sweltering Washington D.C. July afternoon but the First Lady seemed unbothered by the heat. Instead, she brought inspiration, poise, and grace with her: “You all are here today because someone believed in you, because someone gave you the chance to be everything you would want to be.” That line stuck with me then and continues to remind me both that I am worthy of my opportunities, and so are the amazing people around me. But on that July afternoon, I was thinking, what did I want to be? Who believes in me? And what sort of girl do I have the potential to be?

It was a question I asked myself a lot that summer. I was a Teen Advisor for the UN Foundation’s Girl Up campaign and had spent a couple days in DC working with other Teen Advisors for the 2015 Girl Up Summit. I was overwhelmed by the other girls I served with, and couldn’t help thinking that I wasn’t meant to be there. My sixteen-year-old self was not important enough to interact one of the nation’s most inspiring women, and here she was wrapping her arms around me. It was a summer of is this really happening right now? And, why is this happening to me? I don’t deserve to be here. I thought that all summer: in DC at the Girl Up summit, at home as I was packing for a 3 week trip to Rwanda for a global “women in STEM” program, on the plane-ride, and on the bus from Kigali International to our compound at Gashora Girls Academy in Eastern Province, Rwanda.

But once I got to Rwanda, after meeting girls from eight African countries and from around the U.S. and sharing a meal together, I thought – we’re all in this together. The three weeks in Rwanda flew by, and I made lifelong friends. My final project was a prototype of a solar powered Wi-Fi hotspot that was created with love, hard-work and long-nights. Working alongside three other girls from Nigeria, South Africa and Ghana, we had moments of cultural difference, misunderstanding, and frustration, but all of that was accompanied by moments of brilliance, joy, and success.

Throughout my time in Rwanda I was in constant reflection – I was journaling, talking with friends, writing a personal blog, and a more public blog for the Huffington Post. I was constantly progress checking: Do I know the type of woman I will be? Who believes in me? Who inspires me? Have I grown? And the answers became ever clearer: maybe, apparently a lot of people, WOMEN, and YES!!

At the very end of my trip, I was able to present my tech-prototype with another First Lady, The First Lady of Rwanda Jeanette Kagame. I held my head high as I presented on the lack of Internet access afforded to a majority of the world (4 billion people do not have access to Wi-Fi), and the emerging technologies that can better connect people globally. As I sat on the plane on my way home, I knew not only that other people believed in me, but that I believed in myself.

Let Girls Learn taught me about global citizenship, teamwork, female empowerment and most importantly, self-belief. Last week, when an internal memo from the White House was released on the termination of Let Girls Learn, I was devastated. Immediately my phone blew up with Facebook messages from young, empowered women and girls who had, like me, directly benefited from Michelle Obama and the PeaceCorp’s program.

While there have been retracted statements from The White House as to their continued support of women’s empowerment, it is uncertain what the future of Let Girls Learn looks like. Let Girls Learn has been pivotal to me becoming who I am today. I am saddened to think that girls after me won’t have the opportunity to ask themselves the hard questions that I did over the summer of 2015. And even more devastatingly, many won’t have the opportunity to recognize their immense potential. Michelle Obama, in her big way, believed in me, and it taught me to believe in myself.