Frontline Stories

They Don’t Need to Skip Classes

by Lauren Amadei

Do you remember the first time you went to school with your period? I do. There was only one toilet in the far end of the bathroom that had a bin to dispose sanitary products at my school. Worried that the other girls would notice I was visiting that particular toilet and guess I had my period, I tried to sneak inconspicuously as not to raise suspicion. Convinced that I was the only one who had started menstruating, I did my best to keep it a secret. Shame around menstruation, like I had when I first got my period, is a common phenomenon around the world. Whilst periods can unfortunately still cause embarrassment, most girls can easily and affordably access pads and tampons that allow them to continue attending school during their periods, just like I did.

For many girls from low-income households in places such as Uganda, shame around menstruation is common. Limited knowledge around sexual and reproductive health, a lack of menstrual hygiene products and an absence of sanitary toilet facilities in schools can have a serious impact on girls’ education. A study conducted on Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) in Uganda said that about half of the females miss 1 to 3 days of primary school every month due to menstruation.

Enabling girls to learn good menstrual hygiene practices is extremely important for keeping them in school. Reducing unnecessary absenteeism will continue to positively impact girls for the rest of their lives. Those who completed secondary school proved to have better maternal health and go on to have children who are better educated and healthier. Additionally, one extra year in school can increase a woman’s lifetime earnings by 10% to 20%.

In 2016, World Vision distributed 500 menstrual hygiene kits to the girls living in Tororo district in eastern Uganda. Each kit contains underwear, two reusable sanitary pads, eight liners to insert into the pad, a washcloth, a bar of soap and a ziplock bag; all packaged in a colourful drawstring bag.

Most of the girls who received the kits are from low socioeconomic families. Knowledge is power, and the girls loved learning about what was happening to their bodies during menstruation. They feel relaxed to find that periods are actually a sign of good reproductive health. Given the resources to act on this newly acquired knowledge, the girls are now able to attend school during their periods using their menstrual hygiene kits.

Awor, 14

“I got my first period last year. I was at home and quickly told my mum about it. She told me that now I had become a full-grown woman. She gave me some of her own pads that month. Since then she tries as much as she can to get me pads, but sometimes we have no money. I feel guilty asking for pads when I know we don’t even have enough food. These new pads will take the pressure off my mum, and will allow us to spend money on other necessary items. At least she won’t have to worry about me when I have my period from now on.”

Achieng, 16

Achieng comes from a large family of six children, her parents work in unstable jobs and the family often does not have a steady income. Items like sanitary pads are seen as a luxury in her family. In the past, she used old clothes, old towels and rags when she got her period. “I used to tear my old clothes for making pads. I also used rags and old pieces of towel. Despite how careful I am, my clothes are often ruined. I never came to school when I had my period. I also never had enough underwear to stay clean. This kit is something I have never expected to get from anyone. I love this handy bag which can be put inside my backpack. I don’t think I will miss school again.”

Adikini, 14

Adikini comes from a large family of eight children. “I first got my period in January this year. Luckily I was at home. I put some cloth inside my panties to absorb the flow. My skirt became bigger because of all the pieces of cloth I had stuffed inside my underwear. My parents were doing their best to buy pads for me, but they often didn’t have the money. When I didn’t have pads I would have to ask for help from the female teacher at school. Sometimes she doesn’t have enough pads to give out to such a large group of girls in class. We would either sit in the shade of a tree in the school yard or wouldn’t come to school at all. With these pads, I’m sure girls will no longer miss classes. I am so happy that my friends and I received these kits.’’

Breaking the Taboo

It is estimated that around 3,000 days of a woman’s life is spent menstruating. If women and girls are unable to carry on with going to school, playing sports and spending time with friends during their periods, their lives and educational outcomes will inevitably be affected, impacting on whether they continue to study in school or until they graduate.

While providing sanitary hygiene products is one piece of the puzzle, breaking the taboo requires a multifaceted approach. In Uganda, for example, these kits were distributed into an existing education project that aimed to address barriers to good education. Alongside distributing these kits, a number of other activities took place, including advocacy for better MHM at a district government level, hygiene sensitisation training for students as well as training “school hygiene clubs” on the importance of MHM. The project additionally involved producing the kits locally which had the added benefit of boosting livelihoods.

Reading the stories of girls like Achieng, Adikini and Awor helps me to reflect on my own first experience of menstruation, and how my attitude and knowledge have been enriched since then. While I may have initially experienced embarrassment, I now know that menstruation is a normal part of life, and unites me with other women all over the world. This simple biological fact should not hold women back. It should not become a barrier to achieving great results at school and achieving gender equality.

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