According to the 2008 Oxford Handbook of Reproductive Medicine and Family Planning by McVeigh E & Guillebaud J, an average woman experiences approximately 3,000 days of menstruation in her lifetime. Given that most girls start their menstrual periods at the age of 11, which periods last between three to seven days, these are a lot of days for one to be miserable. Yes, menstruation makes many young girls miserable! While menstruation is something that should be celebrated as a sign of good health, this is not the case for a significant percentage of girls in Uganda.
Findings of a study carried out by SNV Netherlands Development Organisation in partnership with the International Water and Sanitation Centre to assess the impact of menstrual management on school girls in 140 primary schools in the districts of Arua, Adjumani, Bundibugyo, Kasese, Kyenjojo, Lira, and Soroti showed disturbing results.
Approximately 700 primary school going girls (half of the girl pupils interviewed) reported missing 1-3 days of school per month during their menses due to lack of adequate facilities like washrooms, sanitary pads and bullying by peers. In a given school term, a girl in her menses misses up to eight days of study, which translates to an average of 24 days (11 per cent) of the total 220 learning days in a year. With the added pressure of school work and assignments, this is time that is very hard to make up for.
Most of the girls said they used a piece of old cloth, while others improvised with napkins used by their younger siblings. Some girls even opted for dry leaves in emergency situations. Not only are these girls dealing with the lack of materials to use; they are also stigmatised by cultural attitudes that regard menstruating women and girls as ‘dirty’. Many girls grow up dreading ‘that time of the month’ because of the social stigma associated with menstruation, as well as the lack of services and facilities to help them cope.
While there are many private companies selling disposable pads in Uganda, most of these are sold in supermarkets in towns. The commercial pads are unaffordable for the poor and do not reach rural areas. A number of social enterprises have emerged to address this issue, like AFRIpads, making re-usable menstrual kits, Makapads and Uganda Industrial Research Institute that make disposal pads out of paper waste and banana stem respectively. Whereas the cost of their products is generally lower than the imported disposable pads, they remain high for the poor, and their reach to rural areas is limited.
To fill the gap, organisations like SNV Netherlands Development Organisation, Plan Uganda and Built Africa have started teaching girls and their parents how to make low cost re-usable menstrual pads out of soft cloths they have at home. By involving the schools, boys and the communities in making the re-usable pads, they are not only empowering the girls to become active actors in finding solutions to their menstrual challenges but are also addressing the inherent cultural taboos that menstruation should never be discussed in the open but handled as a private affair even if it comes at the cost of girls suffering in silence.
Today, we see confident girls at school. A number of schools have embedded the making of re-usable menstrual pads into their art and craft and school health club activities. Beyond teaching girls and women how to make their own menstrual cloths, we still need to address the issue of menstrual hygiene management holistically.
Teaching girls to make their own menstrual cloths is great as an alternative solution. However, we should be able to provide alternative and affordable menstrual solutions to every woman (school and non-school going) in Uganda as a basic right.
This can only be done by prioritising menstrual hygiene management in the national agenda and making it a national priority. Let us make women’s day count by celebrating what really makes women unique- menstruation.
Ms Egunyu is the communications officer, SNV Netherlands Development Organisation. DEgunyu@snvworld.org