Menstruation as a barrier to gender equality in Uganda
Puberty can have a severe effect on girls’ performance and attendance in upper primary schools in Uganda. In many schools, girls between the ages of 11 and 14 are absent for an average of three to five days a month due to their menstrual period. Attendance is undermined because girls do not have access to adequate protection such as sanitary towels or pads. For some subjects – such as maths and science – the result of such regular absenteeism can be devastating as girls miss out on vital stages of the syllabus, resulting in gaps in the learning stages, which they find hard to catch up on later.
Sanitary materials such as sackcloth and rags are often unhygienic or inconvenient. Other methods sometimes employed prevent a girl attending school, or performing any form of social interaction during her menstrual period. In the Kalangala district for instance, a menstruating girl or woman is made to sit on a pile of sand for absorption, leaving her immobile for 3 to 4 days. In some communities, a menstruating woman cannot walk through a crossroad, implying that she should stay at home. Without adequate protection, girls cannot risk going to school because of fears of accidents and ridicule.
A number of studies have found that adolescents learn about their sexual maturation from their peers, resulting in misinformation and myths. Schools do not have emergency sanitary packs available. When accidents occur, poor information is provided. Sometimes, a woman teacher gives the girl protective materials for the first time, and leaves her to convince her parents or guardians to provide them thereafter (which not all are willing or able to do).
Buying sanitary protection means a monthly spending equivalent to four radio batteries or enough paraffin to last a family one month. Where men most often control the household budget, how can girls succeed in getting sanitary materials on to the priority list? What is worse, where sanitary protection for one girl may cost around a tenth of a monthly family income, how can a household afford this where there are two or three girls?
Because of this sensitive situation, the Forum for African Women Educationalists in Uganda (FAWEU), is undertaking a sexual maturation management project supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. It aims to provide facts and discuss sexual maturation and myths within the community. FAWEU advocates for affordable modern sanitary towels: it is trying to influence the removal of taxes on sanitary materials and is exploring the possibility of manufacturing pads locally. The project was implemented in five pilot districts in four regions of Uganda – Kisoro in the west, Katakwi in the east, Nebbi in the north and Kalangala and Kiboga in the centre. These districts were chosen for their low achievement in national examinations and the wide gender gaps both at primary and secondary levels, with large numbers of children out of school, especially girls.
As well as addressing the management of sexual maturation, FAWEU is also focusing on the acceleration of literacy. This is to motivate girls to remain in school and also to empower them to use reading materials on issues of personal development: menstruation, life skills and values. These issues are not effectively covered at school, as the syllabus only concentrates on academic subjects.
The success of the project depends on working closely at national and district level with such partners as the ministries of education, community-based organisations and local leaders and parents. The pilot phase of the project has succeeded in:
Policy recommendations emerging from the project include the need to:
Florence Kanyike, Dorothy Akankwasa and
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