One morning, while preparing to take her bath at home, Josephine noticed for the first time a few spots of blood on her knickers. She was 12 years at the time. Aumo did not tell anyone at home about the incident.
“I was very scared,” she says.
Josephine continued noticing more bloodstains on her knickers for the next three days.
Since it was holiday time, she resorted to spending most of her time indoors. “I did not know what was happening to me,” she says.
She kept her little secret, and throughout the remaining part of the year, she used toilet paper to pad herself and contain her irregular flow.
“I would get a lot of toilet paper, place it over the knicker before putting it on,’ she says.
There were occasions, however, when the stained toilet paper would fall out of her knickers.
One time it happened when a teacher called her out to write a word on the black board and on another occasion, she was out playing with her friends.
Josephine, now 16 years old, says if she had had any prior knowledge on menstruation, she would have known better what to use other than opting for toilet paper, which caused many embarrassing situations.
But, Josephine is not alone. There are many adolescents like her out there facing hardships during their earlier years of menstruation.
What are the findings?
A study conducted on menstrual management in Uganda by the Netherlands Development Organisation in partnership with the International Rescue Committee and International Water and Sanitation Centre, reveals that schoolgirls, mostly those from rural settings, suffer greatly because they lack both services as well as facilities to help them cope with the physical and psychological pains faced during their menstrual periods.
According to the study, some of the issues include inadequate preparations for young girls not yet experiencing menstrual problems, lack of materials for managing menstrual issues, no private space and wash- rooms and inappropriate facilities for disposal of pads.
This menstrual management study was conducted within 20 primary schools in the districts of Arua, Adjumani, Budibudyo, Kasese, Kyenjojo, Lira, and Soroti.
The findings showed that about half of the girl report missing one to three days of primary school per month due to menstrual periods.
The report also revealed there were inadequate menstrual facilities around schools, little education of boy pupils and inactive participation by the senior woman.
The findings stressed that if not addressed properly, menstrual hygiene management would not only lead to more girls missing school, but also potentially cause an increase in the number of girls dropping out of school altogether.
Another study on sustainable menstrual hygiene management released in May 2019 by some of the academic staff from Uganda Christian University (UCU) explores girls’ knowledge, attitudes and practices on menstrual matters from four primary schools in Mukono District.
The UCU academic staff discovered a few shocking findings after talking to the girls from the schools.
Some of the girls said their toilets are open with no doors, hence, making it difficult for them during the time of changing and disposing of the pads.
There are also cases where these girls are deceived that menstruation is a sign that they need to start having sex.
With the findings, it is an indication that a lot needs to be done to change the existing attitude, knowledge and practices on menstruation matters.
The role of primary schools
In a learning institution such as St Kizito Ediofe Orphans Primary School in Arua District, interactive sessions are organised from time to time to tackle issues surrounding menstruation. The talks are spearheaded by the senior woman teacher. “I normally hold these sessions to educate these girls on matters regarding periods [menstruation]. I tell them different things, including its importance and self-care habits during that crucial time of the month,” Ms Emily Arach, the senior woman teacher at St Kizito Ediofe Orphans Primary School, says.
Although the sessions are normally organised for girls in upper primary classes, there a few girls from the lower classes that Arach normally insists should join the sessions.
“Those are the ones I suspect to have started their menstruation cycle early. Some of these girls could even be from Primary Three,’ she says.
Since it is a mixed school, Arach says quite often, different teachers also lecture the boys especially those in upper primary classes, on the role they can play in helping girls during their monthly periods.
“We mostly urge them not to bully or discriminate these girls just because they have started their periods. Instead, we encourage the boys to accord the girls respect like their sisters back home,” Arach says.
Incidentally, when some girls embark on their primary school studies, they have no knowledge on what menstruation is all about because their family members back home did not take time to enlighten them about the process.
It is for this reason that Ms Antonina Nabuduwa, the head teacher of Komukuny Girls Primary School in Kaabong District, Karamojo Sub-region, started guidance and counselling sessions every beginning of term, to inform the girls on different aspects pertaining to menstruation.
“We tell them everything because it is part of our role as their teachers. Besides some of these children do not get the opportunity to hear about these things from any other source,” Ms Nabuduwa says.
Some of the lessons revolve around proper disposal of pads, dealing with menstrual pain as well as how to make reusable pads with pieces of cloth and cotton, among other things.
What can other parties do?
The awareness raising role should not only be left to teachers. It is crucial for other parties to get involved too.
“Parents and guardians should get involved too by having conversations with their daughters regarding menstruation matters. They should break the silence and not shy away from discussing these important aspects of life,” says Christian Aujo, a community welfare officer based in Kaabong District.
Failure to discuss these pertinent issues with girls can cause disastrous effects.
“I have personally interacted with girls who do not know that sanitary pads exist and because of this ignorance, they are using all sorts of material for containing their menstrual flow. One girl, in Primary Three, told me she uses pieces of rugs that have been thrown away by previous owners,” Ms Aujo says.
Health studies point out that using rugs puts one at a health risk mostly exposing her to infections.
On the other hand, communities and organisations can sensitise the masses through educative campaigns on menstrual matters. This will reduce the level of stigma directed towards girls by individuals from communities. But also, most importantly, Aujo says it is important for school administrations to continuously cater for the needs of the girl-child.
“I am aware that in some schools, facilities such as toilets are shared among boys and girls. Some toilets are always dirty because they have no water, which is inconveniencing mostly to the girls,” she says.
Ms Aujo suggests that rural schools should continuously solicit funds from organisations and donors to erect facilities for mostly the girl-child in different primary schools.
Importance of sensitising boys
Mr Timothy Opodo, the executive director at AfriChild Centre, which undertakes evidence-based knowledge building, skills development and influences policy and practice for the wellbeing of the African child, says while growing up, he personally witnessed other boys mocking girls who were experiencing menstruation cycle.
“For example, if a girl took a nap in class after complaining of stomach pain (associated with menstruation), some boys would tease her by saying, “You think you came here to sleep?” Opodo says.
Other girls were scorned because of tying sweaters around their waists. In the end, it would lead to a high rate of absenteeism as the girls would fear getting embarrassed.
For these reasons, Opodo says that boys too should be educated about periods.
“The reason why they bully girls is because they have no idea about menstruation and are failing to understand what is going on with the girl,” he says.
There is need to have deliberate engagement with the boys on matters concerning menstruation so that they can in turn be more sensitive and supportive towards girls, Opondo emphasises.
The article was done with aid of a grant from AfriChild Centre