When teenager Catherine, 15, first got her period, she used to bunk off school because she found it too embarrassing to deal with the rags.
“Sometimes blood would come out onto my skirt,” she explains, “or the rags can even fall down when you are walking.”
In Uganda, as in most poor countries around the world, menstruation is a little talked about yet an immense and stressful problem for teenage girls.
Faced with the prospect of using rags or kitenge, newspaper, leaves or cotton wool to curb the flow of blood, most girls choose to stay off school when their period comes.
Girls also endure local cultural attitudes that stigmatise menstruating women and girls as dirty, and many are too ashamed to leave home while they are bleeding.
But missing school for an extended time once a month means they fall behind in the curriculum, which in the long term can lead to fewer qualifications and limited access to job opportunities.
Maureen, 16, says she has missed a lot of school due to her period.
“Every month I would miss 3 or 4 days. I was fearful of going to school when I had it.”
Perhaps this is why AfriPads are quietly taking Ugandan villages by storm.
The simple yet discreetly revolutionary system of washable, cloth sanitary pads that last for up to 1 year, at a fraction of the cost of an equivalent supply of disposable pads, is convincing girls to go back to school during their periods.
Each kit contains a holder, pads and a storage bag to store pads if they cannot be washed immediately.
At USh12,000 to 15,000 (£2.75 to £3.40) per kit, even girls and women who can’t afford disposable sanitary towels – which can cost around USh42,000 or £9.60 a year - can afford this hygienic alternative to rags.
Absenteeism rates falling
At schools where AfriPads are distributed, teachers have reported that absenteeism has dropped sharply, as girls who previously did not have access to proper sanitary pads no longer stay at home when they have 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 both use AfriPads, and are back in school full-time.
“All the girls are coming to school every day and our grades are better,” says Maureen. “No one is upset about getting their period anymore.”
Menstrual Health Management programme
Plan’s Menstrual Health Management programme is currently running in 53 villages in Lira, Alebtong and Tororo, and includes the distribution of AfriPads to local ‘dealers’ at a subsidised rate, as well as drama and awareness sessions on child marriage, domestic and sexual abuse and menstrual hygiene.
Talks are given to both girls and boys to help destigmatise the subject of menstruation.
Plan Uganda water, sanitation and hygiene specialist Mary Namwebe says the programme contributes indirectly to the retention and performance of girls in schools.
“It also helps promote gender equality more broadly as girls stay in school longer,” she adds.
“They can earn a livelihood and have accurate information on how to manage their health effectively, so they are more likely to live with dignity and be productive members of society.”
World Toilet Day* on 19 November celebrates the importance of toilets and sanitation.
Take our menstrual health quiz
*Plan is not responsible for the content on external websites.