When a girl starts puberty she may feel too shy or embarrassed to talk about topics like her first period – even if she’s desperate to share her feelings or ask questions. This is particularly true in rural Uganda where there is a ‘culture of silence’ surrounding menstruation. Such silences cause many girls to view menstruation and puberty as shameful and dirty. Even though menstruation is a natural process, it is associated with misconceptions, malpractices and challenges among the young female students.
Long school days that increase the risk of menstrual leaks coupled with frequent harassment by boys in and around school toilet areas add to the shame and embarrassment experienced by many post-pubescent girls. As a consequence, the girls feel intense discomfort and shame sitting in class among their male peers. Not surprisingly, absenteeism and schools and dropping out is common for girls during this critical developmental stage. After our founder witnessed, and personally experienced the burden of adolescence she became dedicated to helping females gain back power over their changing bodies!
Throughout our work in Uganda, we have seen female students hindered in their educational pursuit because of these natural changes. Sadly, even more girls are at risk! As of 2015, there are an estimated four million girls said to be enrolled in Ugandan schools. If one million of them have started their periods, and 80% of the country’s population lives in the rural poverty ridden areas, where menstruation is never freely talked about, this leaves 800,000 girls at risk of dropping out or falling behind. In a country where 85% of Uganda’s population lives in rural poverty and more than 50% of the population is under 18 years old, the education of these children is critical for Uganda’s development.
Educating girls, in particular, is widely regarded as one of the best ways to improve the economy and health of developing countries. However, girls consistently fare less well academically than boys. Not surprisingly, academic performance correlates closely with school attendance, and absenteeism. Girls miss out going to school 50 days a year. 2 weeks per school term. Or for many girls 4 days a month. That’s how many days a girl in Uganda may stay at home simply waiting for her period to end. And no matter which way you add it, that adds up to 20% of school year, skipped. During puberty, it is clearly not just the girl’s body that is going through intense changes.
We here at Eco-pads strongly believe in the girl effect- that
“there is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, lower infant and maternal mortality, improve nutrition and pro-mote health” (Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General.)
Yet, receiving an adequate education is rare for Girls in Sub-saharan Africa. Although girls’ school enrollment ratios in the region have increased in recent years (World Bank, 2011), large inequality gaps in primary education remain (UN, 2012). Gender gaps are even more pronounced in secondary education. In Africa, poverty and embedded gender inequalities are key causes of pubescent girls ‘dropping out’ of school or even engaging in ‘transactional sex’ to obtain money to buy sanitary towels so that they can continue to attend. Problems encountered by girl students in Uganda with regard to menstruation management, especially poor school attendance and academic performance as well as school dropout, may seriously hamper the realization of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals on universal education and on gender equality and women empowerment.
Several studies have documented that menstruation related problems, affect more than a third of student’s class concentration, participation, socializing with friends, test-taking skills and homework task performance. It is clear that special support for girl students, especially when they have their first menstruation and separate functioning sanitary facilities are necessities that should be in school at all times if gender equality and girls empowerment is to be achieved. With regard to the impacts of sanitary product access on school attendance, Scott et al. (2009) found that the provision of sanitary towels coupled with menstrual hygiene education in Ghana reduced girls’ absence from school by more than half.
According to Barbara Frost without sanitation, ‘you cannot achieve universal primary education, you cannot promote gender equality and empower women, you cannot reduce child mortality.’
Our future is in the hands of these girls! Join us in our fight to educate and provide for these young girls!