Menstrual Hygiene in rural Uganda

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The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have come to an end and world leaders are currently in New York where they are discussing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will replace them in January 2016.

There is a specific goal about women,

Goal number 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

Rural women and girls in Uganda still face huge challenges including, availability of jobs, not being included in the decision-making process, inability to negotiate individual rights in and outside the home as well as political discourse.

It is my view that some of these challenges persist due to social and economic exclusion of women, as well as political will that means resources are not set aside to address women’s issues.

An example of an issue that impacts women and girls that but is often neglected is menstrual hygiene.

After hearing and reading about rural girls missing several school days a year due lack of access to sanitary towels we decided to explore how this issue could be resolved.

It seemed to us that, if girls are missing school days, this implies poor school results or girls dropping out of the education system leading to inability to access formal employment and in turn high incidences of poverty amongst rural women and girls.

Menstrual Hygiene
Seamstress and the girls cutting up fabric for homemade sanitary towels

Our approach was mostly practical. We provided fabric for making sanitary towels and sewing machines and a local woman started making up homemade sanitary towels for school age girls.

By the end of 6 months, 37 girls had received free homemade sanitary towels and we wanted to find out what impact if any the towels had on their lives.

Menstrual Hygiene
These are some of the girls that benefited from the trial

Alex, our colleague in Uganda sat down with some of the girls to find out how they got on with the homemade sanitary towels and here is their discussion

Impact of reusable pads on the welfare of girls in Ruhanga

The girls reported the following to have been the impact of reusable pads on their welfare and the welfare of the community.

  • Missed school days: There has been reduced school absenteeism as a number of girls used to miss lessons during their monthly periods. This would stem from the fact that their peers would bully them when bloodstains are seen on their dresses.
  • The reduced school absenteeism has slightly increased the performance of girls.

One respondent had this to say.

“There was a time I missed a midterm test because I didn’t have sanitary pads. I live with my father and when I asked for money for sanitary towels. He told me, he had no money to waste on “useless” materials. I was afraid of being humiliated. I had recently witnessed the humiliation of a girl in my class due to an accidental leak that left a blood mark on her chair.  I didn’t have to face such humiliation because of free sanitary pads. As a result, I performed well last term having been able to attend all the lessons including the days I was in my periods. ”

  • Cost: The free sanitary pads distributed to the schoolgirls around Ruhanga have helped their parents financially and the savings were put towards scholastic materials. A packet of disposable sanitary pads in Uganda costs 4,000 Ugandan shillings (0.79 pence’s). On average a girl uses 6 packets in a term, at a cost of approximately 24,000,Ugandan Shillings (£4.72). With the free reusable sanitary pads, parents have been able to save some money that is put towards other things that girls needs.
  • Environment: The girls further point to the sustainability of the environment. One of them said the re usable sanitary pads were helping them to conserve the environment around their school since they did not need to throw away used pads.

This what one of the girls had to say;

We have been having problems with our latrines getting filled quickly (and sometimes having a funny smell) because some girls would dispose their used sanitary pads therein.[1]

Some girls reported that disposable sanitary towels left them with infections and this had improved as a result of using re usable sanitary pads. One respondent said;

The disposable towels did not always keep me dry. I used one towel a day as I didn’t have enough money to buy enough towels to enable me to change several times a day. As a result, I suffered infections.

Having access to reusable sanitary towels has meant, that I can change as often as I need to and this improved hygiene has meant I no longer have infections resulting from the over use of one towel. These towels have saved me money too.

The girls love the red colour of the sanitary pads and some reported that it has helped them the mood swings associated with monthly periods. One respondent had this to say;

I like bright colours as they build my confidence and personality. The red colour of the reusable towels lifts my mood and doesn’t show stains.

 Challenges faced when using the re usable sanitary pads

 

Menstrual Hygiene day
Homemade sanitary towels

The respondents cited the following challenges experienced in using the reusable sanitary towels made through Skills Development Initiative;

  • The re usable pads are not yet of good quality as there are hand made by girls who are learning on the job. Consequently some users found the towels uncomfortable to use
  • There are issues of privacy for those in boarding school as to the towels had be washed and hang out to dry.
Baby Lock sewing machine
Our girls checking out their new sewing machine

Following this feedback, Paige and I had a chance to meet some of the girls and their mothers in Ruhanga. Through our conversations, we learned that some women had no income for most part of the year and as such, have no access to disposable towels and have to improvise during that time of the month.

This means using old pieces of cloth as sanitary towels and for the girls 2 or 3 days off school.

When we explored the issue of cost and hygiene, it became apparent that both women and girls are prone to infections because they do not change soiled towels throughout the day.

We were unable to determine precisely whether this was due to the cost of the towels or general knowledge/understanding of menstrual hygiene but concluded that it was a combination of the two.

Whilst I appreciate that SDGs are merely a development framework, I worry that issues such as, menstrual hygiene that impact women in profound ways will continue to fall through the proverbial development crack if we don’t take action to address them.

The next steps for us are to find ways to scale this programme to enable women and girls to enable women to access low cost sanitary towels.

 

You can support our journey by making a donation at

http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fund/skills4girls

 

[1] From the Focus Group Discussion held on 3 July, 2015 at Ruhanga Skills Centre.

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Child Trafficking – a point of view from Ruhanga

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Where do the kids go?

Most of those who live in or visit Ruhanga have probably asked the question on a return visit to the village “where did a certain child go?” as they seem to have disappeared from the school(s). The answer will inevitably be they have gone to somewhere called “fine” however the reality is often nobody knows, they have just “gone away”.

What we do know, however, is that there are 2.5 million orphans in Uganda and a further unknown number of children who have been lost or abandoned and also that there are some 10,000 street children living in Uganda most of whom are on those streets due to poverty, violence, death of a parent or family reconstruction.

We also know that, according to the U.S. Department of State “Trafficking in Persons Report 2012”, children in Uganda are trafficked both within the country and to other destinations for work in agriculture, cattle herding, mining, stone quarrying, brick making, car washing, scrap metal collection, bars and restaurants and the domestic service sector as well as exploitation in prostitution.

What we don’t know is the extent to which, if any, children from Ruhanga and its vicinity are part of this pattern of activity although the homeless street kids, the 25-30,000 children abducted from Uganda to engage in armed conflicts elsewhere and the children labouring, some in the gravel pits that you will see when you travel to Lake Bunyonyi, came from somewhere; mostly villages in rural Uganda from where they have been taken, often with the consent of impoverished parents, on the promise of “a better life” by those who turn out to be traffickers.

We also know many children in Ruhanga are living within extended families as orphans but we often don’t know how secure and viable those arrangements are or what happens to the children or newly orphaned children if and when those arrangements become unviable due to pressures including behaviour, poverty, family breakdown, illness and death.

To clinically establish what local need there is and how that need can best be met, a piece of work has been commissioned and will be undertaken independently by a research associate at the Institute for Research and Development in Africa (IRDA) based in Mbarara. The consultation may well find (amongst other conclusions):

  1. There is no identifiable need for any particular or additional provision for such vulnerable children in Ruhanga (but maybe elsewhere in the district).
  2. There is a need but it can best be addressed through family strengthening which may include offering support to existing families caring for orphaned, lost or abandoned children through support to get those children to boarding school during term times with extra help during the holidays.
  3. There is a need and a care provision for such children should be established in Ruhanga to meet those needs.
  4. There is a need and a care provision for such children should be established in Ruhanga to meet those needs and additionally there is a need for a family strengthening to support existing orphans placed within extended families to prevent family breakdown creating a need for admission to a home etc.

Whatever the outcome of the consultation process, what is clear, even at this stage, is that, should any home for children be developed locally and proceed with the approval of the Ugandan Ministry of Gender and Labour, then children placed would do so through the Probation and Social Welfare department in Uganda and not directly by families themselves.

Any such facility would also be developed and secured with the consent of the community and not only would it serve to meet local children’s unmet needs to keep them within their home community, social and school environment, but would also create further employment in the village. And, because of the external skill base available to assist those vulnerable children with their practical and emotional development, provide an additional project for suitably equipped volunteers to engage in whilst staying at the Ruhanga Resource Centre

The consultation process is running through until the end of  December 2015 and perhaps provides a unique opportunity to reach out to those young people in Ruhanga whose needs may not always be met through the provision of main stream services or even be identifiable at all. Your support to assist those young people is welcomed.

If you want to share your thoughts and views or have any questions please comment here or email them, to: consult-ruhanga@outlook.com

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Back to school … but not for all

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Today many young people in Ruhanga will be packing their bags and returning to boarding school whether it be at Ruhanga Seventh Day Adventist, Hillside Academy, Itojo Primary or other schools in the area and dozens more will be getting ready to register for next term at Ruhanga Boys Schools, Ruhanga Development School or the Seventh Day Adventist Primary School amongst others.

Team College Ruhanga
Most will know that the education system in Uganda is examination led. With each term lasting around 12 weeks, those children who miss weeks of their education at the beginning of term until their families can gather the required charges are severely disadvantaged often leading to failure at their end of year exams resulting in many being forced from education as re-sitting another year is beyond the means of many families.

The first term of the 2016 school year sees the launch of the Ruhanga Bursary Project, which, thanks to the support of people like yourself, has already seen some two million shillings committed to help secure the future of children in Ruhanga whose families are in short-term financial distress.

The aim of the project is to make short term loans to families to pay the school charges to ensure the children can start the term on day one and repay that loan during the term as funds become available. For example take Isaac, 11yrs old, whose father was working away to earn money for his children’s schooling.

Isaac’s dad was unable to return to the village to pay the school charges on time and, as such, Isaac went two weeks missing crucial education even though the money was there in the longer term. Under the bursary project Isaac could have begun the term on time and his dad could have repaid the bursary on his return to the village.

The bursary project will be available initially to all primary school children in the village with the hope of extending it to secondary school students in the longer term as funds become available. It is also hoped that a limited number of scholarships will become available to children in acutely impoverished families so they can complete their PLEs (Primary Leaving Exams) which are so crucial to future success/income generation.

Find out more about this project and how you can help (even if its just sharing this post) here:
http://ruhanga-community.net/bursary_project_uganda.html

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