Providing sanitary pads to schoolgirls is a controversial subject in Uganda.
During the 2016 election campaign, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni pledged to buy sanitary towels for girls in need. The government estimates that 30 percent of Ugandan girls from poor families miss school because of lack of sanitary towels.
But in February this year, the first lady, who is also the minister for education, told parliament the government didn’t have enough funding for the president’s $4.4 million initiative.
This angered Makerere University researcher Stella Nyanzi, who created Pads for Girls Uganda on the social media site Facebook to collect donations of sanitary towels. Soon, however, she found herself in a police interrogation room accused of insulting the first lady online.
“The interrogation was about four hours,” Nyanzi said. “By the time I was out, my sister, who had my mobile phone number, said, ‘By the way, you are almost getting to your one million pads.’ The following day was Women’s Day and, surprisingly, we got one million sanitary pads within two days.”
Nyanzi continues to push the government to make sanitary pads for girls a priority. Public debate about the subject continues, and the government recently announced that sanitary pads are now to be sold free of value-added tax.
Girls at the Parents Care Infant Academy, in the slum area of Makindye, have taken matters into their own hands.
At the back of the class, there are four sewing machines that students use to make reusable sanitary towels. Large pieces of pink cloth are laid on the table as some of the girls carefully measure and cut, then place a piece of cotton in between and stitch with pins. Ready to be sewn, it is then passed onto the tailors, who include 14-year-old Nantume Catherine.
“Oh, this hole, it’s used to put there cotton, that cotton to hold blood to not come out. You remove it, you throw and you wash it through this hole,” she said.
Sarah Sanyu is the headmistress of the school.
“It was very, very difficult for these girls to stay in public without having these pads,” Sanyu said, “so when we got this idea of making sanitary pads, we bought the materials for ourselves, then we got someone to come and teach us.”
The school also held a special class to teach the girls about menstruation.
Some question the cleanliness of reusable pads, but health officials assure VOA they are safe if properly washed with soap and water. However, access to clean water is not a guarantee in some parts of Uganda.
So important are sanitary pads to keeping girls in school that the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) has distributed 50,000 disposable pads in 14 districts of Uganda since November of 2015.
“It has been very difficult to keep girls in schools, especially in Karamoja, where they have to use leaves,” said Dr. Edson Herbert Muhwezi, assistant representative at UNFPA Uganda. “There are no rags to use, some of them even sit in the sun hoping to dry. They are kept there isolated, staying four days and nights in the bush. It’s really dehumanizing.”
Nyanzi says that is unacceptable. She visits schools to pass out the pads donated to her Facebook group, urging the girls not to let their circumstances hold them down.