Making the Whole Month Count for girls in Kasese, Uganda.
By Guest Blogger Posted on June 12, 2012 Comments: (17)
Educating girls is widely regarded as one of the best ways to improve the economy and health of developing countries (www.girleffect.org.). Yet few people realize that one of the biggest obstacles to female education is Menstruation.
The World Health Organization estimates that in developing countries, girls typically lose two full weeks of schooling a term because of menstruation. Some of this fall-out is logistical - pads are rarely available in rural Uganda and improvised supplies made from rags leave girls vulnerable to damaging reproductive tract infections - and some of it is cultural.
In rural Uganda, for example, menstruating girls is regarded as something unclean and shameful. Considered too impure to participate in school and community activities, most girls simply disappear for a week or so every month.
“There’s a conspiracy of silence here," explains Samuel Ndungo, Director of LUYODEFO, a non-profit, non-government organization that provides support to marginalized communities across the Kasese district of western Uganda. "Many girls lack even the most basic information about puberty, menstruation and reproductive health - and what they do know is often inaccurate, putting them at high risk for early or unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. There's a lot of fear. There’s a lot of misinformation. There are a lot of unanswered questions."
"That’s where we can help," says Ndungo. "By educating, advocating for, and empowering our girls.”
Central to Ndungo’s work is the Sanitary Ware Project, a program that aims to equip girls in rural primary schools with special reusable sanitary pads.
“Girls in Kasese don’t have many options for managing their menses,” Ndungo explains. “Disposable pads are prohibitively expensive and reusable pads are in very short supply. As a result, most girls use old rags as sanitary napkins.”
Pressurized to keep their sanitary supplies out of sight, many girls store and dry their pads in damp, insanitary places where they harbor bacteria. This predisposes girls to potentially devastating urinary and reproductive tract infections that can permanently damage fertility and reproductive health. The lack of protection also increases the girls’ absenteeism from school due to fear and embarrassment of leaking and soiling.
Regular absence from school due to menstruation, infection or child pregnancy results in girls having generally lower educational achievements and reduced social, economic, and employment prospects relative to male peers. Maternal education has been conclusively linked to child and family health because of the link between literacy and a mother’s ability to access health information. Absenteeism therefore impacts the health and development not just of the individual, but of the family and wider social community too. “By helping girls manage menstruation, we can change the health and dynamics of the entire community.”
The Sanitary Ware Project falls under the umbrella of a wider Sexuality and Health Education (SHE) project that educates girls about puberty, personal hygiene, sexuality and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV/AIDS. It’s just one arm of LUYODEFO’s work to empower girls – but it’s an important one that’s already opening doors for Kasese’s girls.
The response of beneficiaries has been overwhelming, but demand continues to outstrip supply - and available funds. Now LUYODEFO is working on finding ways to partner with other suppliers of sanitary materials and ultimately, on finding a way to manufacture the pads locally. A dedicated fundraising site (The Moon Fund) has been set up under Everribbon.org. “So far we’ve distributed the reusable pads to more than 200 girls in 4 primary schools,” says Ndungo. “There’s a long way to go, but already we’re increasing attendance in those four schools.
It’s hard to overestimate the impact of this. Monthly absence from school means that girls typically attain lower overall education levels than boys, further amplifying the male-female inequality that shapes community and family structures throughout the developing world.
“This isn’t just about raising attendance though,” Ndungo is quick to point out. “It’s about raising the profile of girls at home, at school, and in the community. It’s about teaching them to advocate for themselves. It’s about telling them to be proud. It’s about telling them they have the right to be healthy and educated.”
The implications of this are significant. Today’s young girls will teach the next generation about puberty, sexuality, and reproductive health. The conspiracy of silence will have been broken. “By helping girls feel empowered we really can create social change,” insists Ndungo. “We can challenge old ideas. Girls who feel empowered are going to ask questions and push to get their questions answered. They’re going to understand what’s happening to their bodies, and be able to make informed decisions that keep them healthy and safe.”
For an ecologically sound product that carries a less-than-$4-a-year price-tag, that’s a pretty impressive achievement.