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!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

African Media Can Move Beyond Risk Reporting for Biotech

By Esther Nakkazi

An image of an injection into a juicy tomato 'tomato syringe' or a huge cabbage with an elephant body are the most common illustrations used by the media on biotechnology stories.

Its dramatic, catchy, appealing and all about ‘hey-stop-pay-attention’ but can also be the opposite.

So the cabbage can have an elephant gene, yes it can because basically, biotechnology involves the movement of genes of interest.

These illustrations depicting biotechnology were first published in 2000 and have persisted much to the frustration of scientists, science communicators and not-for-profit organisations like ISAAA or the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Application which continuously tracks such stories and images.

“It gives the impression that scientists are injecting things into crops which creates fear, anxiety, outage, and mistrust,” said Dr. Margaret Karembu an environmental scientist from ISAAA who said they have even written to the media houses that continue to use these illustrations to no avail.

She was speaking to media practitioners at a COMESA/ACTESA communication training on biotechnology and biosafety held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from 7th to 9th March 2017.

I can best describe it as the media wanting to keep biotech dramatic pictures, illustrations and stories while scientists want facts only. The India suicide story of BT cotton still continues to make rounds alarming people in African and not much is done to explain that these happened due to borrowers failing to pay their debts and it was thoroughly investigated.

The groups on either side of the debate are not very helpful as each feed exaggerated messages to the media that is not well trained. But Dr. Karembu maintains that even those pulling these technologies downward or disagree should argue from an informed point of view.

For the African media, of course minus South Africa, which is ahead of the pack in biotechnology, this reporting might be inevitable. After all, uptake of the technology is at snail-speed. The media can only move in tandem with upcoming laws and research as well skeptics seem to override the contest with the limited public knowledge.

But Dr. Karembu is still unhappy that the African media still depicts biotech as a foreign technology, that those illustrations show monsters trying to dump things in Africa yet more and more African scientists have been trained on biotechnology.

With this pool of trained African scientists, however, a few try to preach the biotech gospel some get disappointed after spending long hours with reporters only to get footnotes in controversial stories.

Biotech stories have to compete and if not relegated to science pages or publications are used as fillers in daily media. Writing them as ‘she-said-he-said’ without much analysis and investigation does not make them popular either.

ISAAA has noted that the African media continues to hype the risk factor alarming publics and not explaining the technology enough. I must say going beyond portraying biotech as a myth, mystery, superstition will take a while for the African media just as interchanging the terms GMOs and biotechnology continues.

Dr. Getachew Belay a plant breeder from COMESA/ACTESA says the word ‘hazard’ makes him uncomfortable in African biotech stories but how risk is overplayed and perpetually communicated remains bizarre to him. All technologies have risks and benefits - the balancing of the two sides alludes the media.

Biotechnology may be used in various industries including pharmaceuticals, but it is particularly controversial in agriculture because it is what we eat. That notwithstanding it is a highly regulated technology with rigorous safety assessment.

It does not help that biotech terminologies have no local language translations yet community radios keep mushrooming everywhere in Africa and the farmers' tune. But ISAAA has scientists who have been trying to define and find local dialect meaning for biotech terms.

But this it is not as fast as how science is developing and whose work is it anyway? “ You need a strategic approach,” said Dr. Karembu who links these stories to the African victim mentality, which delays grabbing of opportunity and fails to separate politics from technical issues.

“Encourage more of dialogue than debate. Shed off that mentality so you are not victims of the technology,” she said but it easier said than done and especially with writing biotech.

Nixon Ngang’a science editor at Citizen Television and biotech media trainer said he would still use the illustrations to catch the attention of a six-year-old and his grandmother. Isn’t that what communication is all about anyway - visual attraction.

But he is quick to defend using these images. ‘It is not malicious. We want to catch the attention of the audience,” he said.

I must also say that the narrative is changing albeit gradually. The African media has come a long way in reporting biotech. It is improving as some journalists exclusively becoming science journalists like me but the biotech pieces of training remain are far in between and some scientists remain media shy.

But we shall get there as the pool of more African journalists and trained on biotech and better pictures and illustrations are made available.