Students in Uganda lead the way in making periods affordable and smashing taboos

24 August 2017
Uganda, Periods, Girls and women
Image: WaterAid/Eliza Powell

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In the remote region of Karamoja in north-eastern Uganda, an inspiring group of teenagers are working with international charity WaterAid to break the silence around periods and debunk menstruation myths, thanks to funding from players of People’s Postcode Lottery.

The children at St Mary’s School used to go to the toilet in the bush and girls often skipped lessons when on their period. WaterAid has helped improve school life by building latrines and teaching students about the value of good sanitation and hygiene, as well how to safely manage their periods and make reusable sanitary pads.

The students are now helping transform lives in their community by forming a WASH Club (water, sanitation and hygiene) and using drama, music and games to share the valuable lessons they have learned. As a result, they are helping keep girls in school, smashing taboos, and improving people’s health and wellbeing.

One in ten adolescent girls across Africa miss school due to menstruation and then eventually drop out, according to UNESCO. In Uganda, research by Oxford University found that where sanitary pads or puberty education are not provided, absenteeism among girls is 17% higher than in schools where girls receive pads, education or both. This is equal to nearly three and a half days of school a month.

Esther, 16, a student at St Mary's, said:

“Before, when we told our parents to buy us pads, they told us to just use our knickers. Disposable pads are expensive, and when girls didn't know how to make pads they would have to miss school, maybe for three days. In our hygiene club, we have learned how to make sanitary pads, and also teach our friends about menstruation. Now things are changing!”

There are many myths around menstruation in Karamoja, such as the belief that stepping on groundnuts while on your period would stop them growing, and sitting on rocks would relieve period pain. Meanwhile, some believe that the onset of your period meant you should get married. These are two things the WASH Club are helping bring an end to.

Fiona, 15, said:

“In villages, some say that if a girl starts menstruation she is ready to marry. It's true that you can bear children but you are not ready to marry because you are still young. I first want to finish my studies, get my job, then marry.”

Boys as well as girls have embraced the initiative, helping end the stigma and making it more normal to talk about periods, bringing change throughout the community. Student Dennis, 14, is passionate about performing his own songs about menstruation. He said:

“It is good for boys to know about periods too so that they can teach their sisters. In my songs I talk about menstruation and other things. Spreading my message about hygiene through songs is good. Here, many people defecate out in the open; if they hear my message, they may dig latrines at home.”

In Uganda, 32 million people don’t have access to a decent toilet. Fiona’s family built a latrine at home after she learned the importance of good sanitation at school. Her mother Alice, 62, said:

“I am proud of Fiona. She is the one who told me to construct a latrine and taught us how to make reusable pads. The knowledge that Fiona has brought me is really helping all of us.”

Tim Wainwright, WaterAid Chief Executive, said:

“The secrecy and stigma around menstruation makes it more difficult for women and girls to get the help and support they may need to manage their periods hygienically and with dignity – particularly for the one in three women who have no access to a decent toilet.

“Children are powerful agents of change and are vital in helping us spread the awareness of the importance of good sanitation and menstrual hygiene. The efforts by the hygiene club at St Mary’s are truly inspiring; they are helping really transform lives in their community, and the effect will be felt among generations to come.”

Players of People’s Postcode Lottery, who have awarded £3.8 million to WaterAid’s life-saving work since 2013, are helping fund WASH clubs across Africa.

The story of St Mary’s WASH Club has been captured in a powerful new film that is being released as part of WaterAid’s global campaign, The Water Fight, which aims to make clean water and toilets normal for every child and every school everywhere by 2030.

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