In Uganda, menstruation is not a frequently discussed topic, yet it is a big problem for teenage girls. Faced with the prospect of using rags, newspaper, leaves or cotton wool to curb the flow of blood, many girls choose not to go to school during their period.
When Catherine, 15, first got her period, she stayed at home because she was embarrassed. “Sometimes blood would come out onto my skirt,” she says. “The rags I used even fell down when I was walking.”
In addition, girls endure attitudes that stigmatise menstruating women and girls as dirty, and many are too ashamed to leave home while they are bleeding. Missing school for an extended time every month is detrimental to girls’ education and means they fall behind their male peers.
These millions of absences lead to girls getting fewer qualifications, limited access to jobs and spending less time building confidence and life skills.
Maureen, 16, has missed a lot of school due to her period. “My mother never talked to me about it,” she says. “My friends told me that when I start my periods I should use a rag. They didn’t explain it – they just told me to do it. Every month I would miss 3 or 4 days. I was fearful of going to school when I had it.”
Afripads, a local partner of Plan International, is providing a simple and effective solution to the problem. They produce washable, cloth sanitary pads that last for up to a year and cost a fraction of an equivalent supply of disposable pads. As a result, girls are feeling confident enough to go back to school during their periods.
"Girls who use AfriPads say they’re more comfortable now,” says one teacher. “They can run and play which they were afraid to do before when they had their periods.”
Both Catherine and Maureen now use AfriPads and are back in school full-time. “All the girls come to school every day and our grades are better,” says Maureen. “No one is upset about getting their period anymore.”
In addition, Plan International is running a menstrual health management programme in Lira, Alebtong and Tororo that includes the distribution of AfriPads to local sellers at a subsidised rate, as well as the provision of awareness raising sessions on sexual health and menstrual hygiene. Talks are given to both girls and boys to break down the stigmas surrounding menstruation.
Peninah, 15, is one of the youth leaders of the project at her school. “I wanted to be a health prefect so I could help my friends,” she says. “I teach them about keeping clean. I tell them to wash their AfriPads very well, and to dry them very well.”