At a political rally of November 2015, the then Presidential Yoweri Museveni of Uganda promised to provide free sanitary pads to schoolgirls if elected. He argued that girls should not have to miss school because they cannot access sanitary pads. Naturally there was a lot of excitement amongst those of us with an interest in menstrual hygiene when Museveni won the election.
At the time of his announcement, LTHT the organisation I work for had been looking into the issue of how schoolgirls in Ruhanga SW. Uganda access menstrual absorbents.
We had completed our first trial of reusable sanitary pads made by girls at Team College in Ruhanga. Our experiment had thrown up several challenges such as sourcing fabric at a reasonable cost, improving the quality of the pads etc.
Following the elections in February 2016, we waited for news as to how the policy on menstrual hygiene for schoolgirls would be implemented, but none came.
In the meantime we had found a solution to the challenges we faced in our trial and established a menstrual hygiene workshop in Ruhanga, recruited and trained a team of Menstrual Hygiene Ambassadors.
The Ambassadors role includes ensuring that all schoolgirls in Ntungamo district SW Uganda have access to information on Menstruation as well as safe and clean menstrual absorbents.
In the first four months of the program, the team visited 12 schools and spoke with 1175 girls as well as some of their teachers and these are their findings;
- 53% of the girls didn’t know what menstruation was before they experienced it
- 61% of the girls have felt ashamed or embarrassed due to their periods
- 42% of the girls interviewed miss 2.6 days of school during their periods because they don’t have access to sanitary products which impacts negatively in their performance.
- Students change their sanitary products every 9 hours
- 48% of the students feel bad or very bad during their MPs
- 73% of the students use reusable pads but on average they change them every 9 hours which is not hygienic or healthy
- 13% of the students use reusable sanitary pads at school and a cloth at home
- 9.1% of the students use a cloth
- 4.4% of the students use leaves, mattress stuffing, toilet paper or nothing at all.
As you can imagine these statistics presented a challenge to us at so many levels. We spent the school holidays (December 2016- 4 Feb 2017) trying to figure out how we would address the issues our research had uncovered such as the lack of access to sanitary pads, lack of general knowledge about menstruation etc.
We spoke to several people about or predicament and almost everyone we spoke to, reassured us that we had nothing to worry about since menstrual hygiene is a matter close to President Museveni’s heart and he would do something about it as promised during his campaign.
We lived in hope but this hope was dashed last week when the Ministry of Education as well as Uganda’s First Lady announced that there is no money to pay for sanitary pads.
Following this announcement, Ugandans took to Social Media to express their disappointment and outrage.
The reaction by Stella Nyanzi a Ugandan academic summed up what many were feeling and or thinking. You can read about what she had to say on her Facebook page Stella raised two issues in here post that I would like to explore here; 1) Female legislators and gender equality, 2) Corruption and priorities
Female Legislators and gender equality
As far I can understand Stella’s point of view, Mrs. Museveni as a mother and a woman should do whatever it takes to ensure that poor schoolgirls have access to sanitary pads.
I found this point of view interesting because it speaks to the expectation that a female legislator is more likely to address and even prioritise issues that impact women and girls than a male legislator.
In countries such as the United Kingdom, the fact that the government is led by a woman has not resulted in the cancellation of Value Added Tax (VAT) on sanitary pads or Tampons whilst research on aid allocation to developing countries found no relation between female political representation and aid allocation for gender equality
During the 9th Parliament, Mrs. Museveni was the MP for Ntungamo district. This is the same district where she and her husband hail from and as you have seen from our findings, access to menstrual hygiene isn’t any better there. This fact surprised several Ugandans online
Why do we have such expectations of female legislators?
Corruption and Priorities
With respect to corruption, legislators in Uganda’s parliament are currently taking evidence on what has become known as the Presidential Handshake. This relates to a case in which various government employees rewarded themselves $1.7 Million and it is alleged the president signed off on this.
We can all agree that, that sort of money would make a big difference with respect to the provision of sanitary pads for girls whose parents cannot afford them. I can make this assertion because a 3-year supply of sanitary pads made at our workshop costs £5.50 or $6.85
It was interesting to note Mrs. Museveni would like to prioritise the introduction of free access to secondary school education following the success of increased school registration especially amongst girls at primary level.
I argue that it is not enough to simply increase girls’ registration if they can’t stay in school due to a lack of sanitary pads. Making girls access to education a priority should include ensuring that girls can stay in school and that obstacles such as accessing sanitary pads are removed.
I agree with Stella in this regard, the priorities are wrong.
To support LTHT’s menstrual hygiene program please make a donation at http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fund/sanitarypads4girls