Op-ed – We should talk about menstruation to keep girls in school

By Badru Walusansa

Girl child education in Uganda has suffered severe visible challenges in the last two decades, including among others, child marriage and cultural practices that restrict girls from attending school.

Like other Sub-Saharan countries, Uganda has leveraged on both national and international support programmes to address the above challenges. I remember two years ago, my university lecture re-emphasised the educating a girl is educating a nation adage.

However, her appeal and that of many others about girl child education, is yielding fruit, since many reports indicate an increased enrollment of girls in schools. As government and civil society organisations continue to roll out programmes to increase school enrollment and keep girls in school – lack of access to affordable sanitary pads is undoing the strides.

A survey by the New Vision newspaper in 2013 indicated that 30 per cent of girls leave school for lack of sanitary pads. It added that menstruation, especially in rural societies, is discussed in hushed tones. Unfortunately, the ripple effect is that young girls across the country are forced out of school because they cannot manage their menstrual hygiene.

Menstruation can be traumatising for many girls in school, especially those experiencing it for the first time. For instance, before the onset of menstruation, adolescent girls can experience tension, low-esteem, depression, tiredness and irritability – all symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, which can affect the way adolescent girls relate to other students in school and their teachers.

A 2011 report by UNESCO estimates that one in ten African adolescent girls miss school during menses and eventually drop out because of menstruation-related issues such as the inaccessibility of affordable sanitary protection, the social taboos related to menstruation, and the culture of silence that surrounds it.

Whilst undertaking a study on the effectiveness of sex education and how it’s taught in rural primary schools, I engaged a 14 year old girl in Primary Seven who revealed that her teachers kept dodging talking about menstruation.

Sex education was an indispensable lesson taught from Primary Four onwards, during which girls were formally introduced to menstrual hygiene. How then would girls have encountered knowledge about body changes without sex education?

President Yoweri Museveni recently banned teaching of sex education in schools. I don’t know what is alternatively left as a communication and information strategy for adolescent girls experiencing menses in schools.

The ban is likely to affect many adolescent girls who cannot access information on menstruation, either in school or at home. Although Uganda signed the Menstrual Hygiene Charter in 2015, a lot remains wanting. For example, the cost of a cheapest sachet of pads is Shs1,200/= which makes it unaffordable to many girls and their families of low income status. This prompts girls to resort to use of banana fibers, sponges, pieces of cloth and cotton.

However, such alternatives pose health risks and discomfort to girls, lowering their dignity, concentration and performance levels in class. Most urban schools have at least responded positively to the call of the Menstrual Hygiene Charter through establishing menstrual hygiene and sanitation facilities.

During the 2016 presidential campaigns, President Museveni promised to provide free sanitary ware to rural school-going girls. This came after studies indicated glaring high school drop outs due to the enormous challenges that girls grappled with during menstruation such as stigma and health complications, which barred them from regularly attending and completing school. Unfortunately, the President’s promise has not been implemented.

I think fulfillment of the President’s promise will be a big boost to having more girls attend school without menstrual hindrances, although it remains a post-mortem approach. The government should first consider tax exemptions on sanitary ware, because relying on hand outs as promised by the president is not sustainable.

We should encourage local initiatives that produce reusable sanitary pads and make them accessible and affordable.

It’s also imperative to promote “girl-talks” in schools facilitated by mainly female teachers, counsellors and parents, with the rationale of discussing menstrual hygiene.

Finally, we need to popularise May 28, every year, as the Menstrual Hygiene Day to increase awareness about menstruation to the girl child out there.

 

Mr Walusansa is a Commonwealth Correspondent