Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Should Sanitary Pads for Ugandan Girls be Entirely Free?

By Esther Nakkazi

On his forth leg of the campaign trail, which took him to Lango region in Northern Uganda, candidate Yoweri Museveni also the incumbent, said if the people vote him back into power all school going girls will get free sanitary pads.

It is only the girls who are under the Universal Primary and Secondary Education (UPE/USE) programs that were started by the National Resistance Movement (NRM) that has been in power since 1986 who will get the free sanitary pads.

He explained that girls who lack pads skip school when that time of the month comes. “Girls should not have to run away from school because they are ashamed. We will get them what to use,” assured Museveni. But this is the second time that candidate Museveni has promised free sanitary pads.

Elections are due in February 2016 but if the niceties the eight candidates promise the voters come to pass, all Ugandans would indeed live in paradise thereafter.

But let us focus on this promise by candidate Museveni particularly because sanitary pads are a reproductive health commodity and access and financing of sexual and reproductive health commodities is such a big issue in Uganda.

It is true that girls' performance is lower, absenteeism and drop out rates higher in school because of this menstrual hygiene problem. 

So why not celebrate with civil society who have at last managed to put menstrual hygiene on top of the development agenda?

When I met officials from the Sexual and Reproductive Health Unit at the Ministry of Health at the monthly science café, which focussed on Sexual Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for adolescents and youth sponsored by Uganda Network of AIDS Service Organisations (UNASO) I put it to them.

Olivia Kiconco from the Ministry of Health who was quick to clarify that it was her own opinion and not related to her work place expressed fears of the repercussions of giving out free things. She said she would rather they get an investor to set up a factory here so that they are cheaper.

Wilberforce Mugumya, the reproductive health coordinator at the Ministry of Health was of the view that this should be looked at more comprehensively, in terms of menstrual hygiene and dysmenorrhea to improve the girl child education.

“At the Ministry we look at the policy implications. We shall need to unpackage the President’s commitment. Doing it is a process and takes time,” said Mugumya. He reminded us that with making this statement candidate Museveni started with ‘If you vote for me….”

In my own opinion I think this is definitely a good and commendable thing to do by the government but I have my own fears for free things. What has happened to free mosquito nets?

Bed nets may be used at the front line of fighting malaria and they have proven to be effective but look at the misuse, or multiple uses if you are optimistic; from use as nets in football posts, to fishing nets, wedding veils. And this is inspite of the education and awareness attached to them.

I am imagining creatively using sanitary pads that are handed out for free for stuffing pillow cases, mattresses, using the polythene cover for making crafts or not giving them to the girls in UPE And USE schools and misappropriating them because they are expensive. Currently, sanitary pads (a pack of seven) costs 3,000 Uganda shillings or ($9).  

So I would rather a small fee is attached to them or that the government removes taxes on sanitary pads so that they are cheaper for those who do not qualify to get them for free and promotes local innovators like the manufacturers of MakaPads, which are made from papyrus and waste paper.

But also this is the second time free sanitary pads are coming up in Museveni's campaigns so we should definitely question if it will work this time round.

We discussed all this at the ninth science café organised by the Health Journalists Network in Uganda (HEJNU). 

Speakers were Primah Kwagala from CEHURD; Bakshi Asuman from REACH a Hand; Patrick Mwesigye, Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Uganda Youth and Adolescents Health Forum; Godfrey Walakira from Straight talk Uganda; and Olivia Kiconco and Wilberforce Mugumya from the Sexual and Reproductive Health Unit at the Ministry of Health.

They exchanged views with journalists about Post Abortion Care (PAC), gender justice, family planning, youth friendly services in health facilities, diversity in HIV, dating violence, Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) in HIV and human rights issues for youth and adolescents on sexual and reproductive health. It was a good afternoon well spent!


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