When 16-year-old Esther asked her parents if they could buy her sanitary napkins, they told her she'd have to go without. Disposable pads are expensive, her mother explained. And if she needed to manage her period at school, her only refuge was in the bushes since there were no proper bathrooms. "When girls don't know how to make pads, they have to miss school, maybe for three days," Esther tells me.
Access to menstruation products and sanitary facilities is so limited In Karamoja, a remote region in northeastern Uganda, that girls miss 3 days of school per month, on average. Over time, those absences inflict damage not just on a young woman's academic development, but her state of mind.
Poverty and menstruation myths have become destructively entwined in Uganda, where an average pack of sanitary towels costs a dollar, but the majority of people live below a dollar a day. For humanitarian charities such as WaterAid, It can be challenging to convince people of the truth about menstruation—but that doesn't mean they're not making progress.
In Karamoja's district of Namalu, the charity has launched its first "period club" at St. Mary's School in a bid to break the silence around menstruation and debunk the myths that lead to feelings of shame. With latrines instead of bushes, and lessons on how to make reusable sanitary pads, girls like Esther have no reason to skip school anymore. Their WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) club even uses drama, music, and games to encourage students to share and celebrate what they've learned.
"In our hygiene club, we have learned how to make sanitary pads, and also teach our friends about menstruation," Esther says. "Now things are changing." Ritah, a woman who attended the school when she was younger, is one of WaterAid's local partners—she visits schools and communities to teach children how to make the pads.
Ritah and her cohort saw first-hand that radical change was urgently needed. According to UNESCO, one in ten adolescent girls across Africa misses school due to menstruation before eventually dropping out altogether. In Uganda, research conducted by Oxford University in 2016 found that where sanitary pads or puberty education wasn't provided, absenteeism among girls was 17 percent higher than in schools where girls received either or both. This absenteeism has consequences: In 2015, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), calculated that female literacy rates in Ugandan primary schools lag behind at 49 percent compared to 69 percent for males, with gender gaps widening once children reach secondary school.
These figures highlight a destructive domino effect. As soon as a Ugandan woman's first period arrives, it sets her on a path that's obstructed by hurdles. "Faced with the prospect of using rags, newspaper, leaves or cotton wool to curb the flow of blood, many girls choose not to go to school during their period," says Tanya Barron, CEO at Plan International UK, a charity that also campaigns to reduce menstruation stigma in Africa. "These millions of absences lead to girls getting fewer qualifications, limited access to jobs and spending less time building confidence and life skills."
A lack of facilities frustrates things further. A release from WaterAid notes that, in Uganda, 32 million people don't have access to a decent toilet. That's one in three women. Open discussion is also discouraged. "In Uganda, it's a taboo in our culture for boys or men to know that women are menstruating," says Samanya Kyategeka, a spokesperson for ActionAid Uganda. "So girls cannot approach their fathers and ask for money to buy sanitary towels, yet the men own the majority of the resources in most households."
This lack of dialogue fuels a lot of dangerous myths—"sitting on rocks relieves period pain," for one. Likewise, the WASH Club is keen to educate both girls and boys about a woman's monthly cycle—the facts, not hearsay. And in this small rural district, students' and their families' perspectives are already beginning to shift as people realize that periods aren't just a women's issue; they affect the whole community. "It is good for boys to know about periods too so that they can teach their sisters," says Dennis, 14, who has even penned his own songs about menstruation.
Education is integral, without a doubt, and everyone involved in the movement is now pushing for government-backed investment to ensure hygiene products are affordable for all women. It goes to show what can be achieved with little more than a clean bathroom, some reusable sanitary pads, and sometimes, a catchy tune.
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