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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Government can cheaply realise girls pads pledge

By Esther Nakkazi

When he was campaigning for re-election of Uganda’s top job in 2015, candidate Yoweri Museveni promised free sanitary pads for all school girls under the Universal Primary and Secondary Education (UPE/USE) programs that were started by his party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM).

It was an election pledge he made while on his forth leg of the campaign trail in northern Uganda. “Girls should not have to run away from school because they are embarrassed. We will get them what to use,” said Museveni. But he has not made good on this campaign promise.

He was re-elected in 2016 and he named his wife Janet Kataaha Museveni on the new cabinet as the minister of education and sports who in her capacity is supposed to make this happen.

But now a year later, Mrs. Museveni stunned the nation while speaking to the parliament education committee when she honestly said there are no funds to provide free sanitary pads.

I think the incident would have largely passed as any parliament news item until Dr. Stella Nyanzi  put out a provocative post that rocketed around the internet.

Nyanzi said her own mother provided her with ‘Lilia’ pads to protect her dignity and hygiene meanwhile of Mrs. Museveni who asked parliamentarians to understand that there is no funding, she   dismissed as ‘no mother to the nation’.

“I should visit her without protection during my next menstruation period, sit in her spotless sofas and arise after staining her soul with my menstrual blood! That will be my peaceful demonstration in solidarity with Uganda’s poor adolescent girls,” Stella wrote.

Her demonstration continued with setting up a ‘gofundme’ and an online campaign for free pads. In the schools were she has been girls received free pads while singing and dancing to Stella’s self composed ‘pad lyrics’ which goes like “I have a pad.… I put it here.. I pepeya.”

The Ministry of education has since put out a circular not to allow Nyanzi and activists into government aided schools. Private schools are also monitored.

In my opinion, Nyanzi has given menstrual hygiene visibility. Many people may not like her choice of words but at least the message was sent home and hopefully government will full-fill its pledge.

It is true that candidates may make promises to the public to win over votes but in his case, Museveni was an incumbent and knew that forking out Ush16bn annually to provide free pads was unsustainable but a promise is a promise so let him manoeuvre.

Well, menstrual hygiene management was our topic of discussion at the 18th science café organised by the Health Journalists Network in Uganda (HEJNU) in partnership with Reach A Hand and supported by UNFPA Uganda.

In our discussion at the café we talked about the need to emphasise hygiene while talking about menstruation. I like what Nyanzi wrote; “My mother provided pads in order to protect my dignity and hygiene. I excelled at school although I was a menstruating girl.”

To emphasise it further, Dr Edson Muhwezi, the country Assistant Representative UNFPA said it should not only be the aspect of the pad but also the soap, availability of water and education.

A typical girl without access to modern pads lives in a rural setting, sleeps on the floor, for her it is a taboo to talk about pads in public, she uses a cloth which she washes and cannot even dry in direct sunlight. So it dries but not thoroughly and thus has moulds which cause candida and itching. That is unhygienic.

She is also afraid to go to school and will be absent. Studies have shown that early pregnancy and menstrual hygiene are leading causes of school dropout for girls. A study conducted by IRC and SNV in 2012 estimated that close to 4 million Ugandan girls live without proper sanitary care. As a result, 1 out of 10 girls skips school or drops out entirely due to a lack of menstrual hygiene.

Godfrey Walakira from the youth organisation, Straight Talk Foundation told journalists at the café that it was important to make boys and fathers part of the menstrual hygiene conversation. For isn’t it boys who tease the girls and also make it impossible for them to go to school? While fathers buy pads for their daughters.

Another idea Walakira proposed was to include pads as a mandatory on school items for all girls. After all they ask for all sorts of things; cement, brooms, razor blades, beds, basins.. This should be in the short term as Museveni manoeuvres to fullfill his pledge.

When girls have sanitary wear they are empowered psychologically and they gain self confidence said Sophia Grinvalds, the Founder and Director, AFRIpads (U) Ltd.

They also create equal opportunities for the girls. Let us do the maths. A school term has three months, for each month a girl experiences menstruation for one week. Without pads the girl will miss school for 3 weeks in a term totalling a month of the school term. How then do you expect her to compete with boys?

Even if the government does not offer expensive pads there are cheap alternatives like the Ugandan-made Makapads and AFRIpads which are also reusable and their deluxe kit of 4 pads which costs Ushs 16,000 can be used for a year and the test kit of two pads costs 6,500.

The Afripads are thus durable, cost effective, logistically easy to distribute, ultra absorbent and made of fabric so no burning or itching effect, eco-friendly since they do not require regular disposal and a perfect solution for menstrual hygiene, explained Grinvalds. Many girls are using these in refugee settlements.

So since there are cheaper alternatives which are sustainable surely government can full fill its pledge. It is a good gesture that translates to democracy too. Dr. Muhwezi said non profits shall continue to do their part because at the moment UNFPA has partnered with AFRIpads and Straight Talk Foundation to distribute free pads but it is a concerted effort.

With government as a player in menstrual hygiene, better, broader and faster outcomes for the girl child will be realised. Menstrual hygiene management will be a priority and institutionalised in Uganda. That is not so difficult come on!

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