By Emma Batha
LONDON, Oct 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Ugandan
schoolgirl Auma got her first period she asked her mother for
sanitary pads. Her mother suggested she find herself a husband
to pay for them. Auma was just 12.
Auma's story is not uncommon. Many girls in Uganda drop out
of education when they begin menstruating because their schools
lack proper washrooms or because they cannot afford costly
sanitary products which are all imported.
Aid agency Plan International says hundreds of girls are
forced into child marriages by parents too poor to buy hygiene
Many others are pressured into having sex by boys who offer
to buy them sanitary items in return. Some end up pregnant and
drop out of school.
Girl's menstrual health, normally a taboo subject in
conservative Uganda, made headlines this year when a high
profile campaigner on the issue was arrested and detained for
calling President Yoweri Museveni "a pair of buttocks" in a
University lecturer Stella Nyanzi unleashed a series of
colourful attacks on the president and his wife after he failed
to keep an election promise to provide sanitary pads to
Earlier this year, First Lady Janet Museveni, who is also
minister for education, said the government did not have
Nyanzi promptly launched a crowdfunding campaign
#Pads4GirlsUg to collect donations for pads to be distributed at
She was released on bail in May after a month behind bars,
but is on trial for cyber harassment.
A government official said the education ministry was now in
talks with a national charity and a pharmaceutical company with
a view to producing free hygiene products for schoolgirls.
Nyanzi's case has shone a spotlight on an issue that
development experts say is a major barrier to girls' education.
U.N. children's agency UNICEF has estimated around 60
percent of girls in Uganda miss class because their schools lack
separate toilets and washing facilities to help them manage
Many fall behind and end up quitting school. Once out of
school they are more likely to be married off.
Patrick Adupa, Plan International's child protection
programme manager in Uganda, said the lack of menstrual hygiene
support for schoolgirls was a strong factor in the country's
high drop-out rate.
More than 40 percent of girls fail to complete primary
school and only a fifth start secondary school, Adupa said.
"Education is a very powerful tool in the prevention of
child marriage," he added.
"When girls are out of school because they cannot manage
their periods it's hard for them to avoid marriage."
Although Uganda has banned child marriage, four in 10 girls
are wed before they turn 18, and one in 10 before 15, UNICEF
Adupa said sanitary products could cost girls around $2 a
month - a prohibitive price in a country where nearly one in
five people lives on less than $1 a day.
Instead girls often use old rags, dried leaves or grass or
paper - sometimes tearing pages from school books.
Auma was lucky. Her mother did not force her to marry and
she is now 15 and still in school in Tororo district in eastern
But teenager Christine Amusugut was not so fortunate. When
she complained about using rags, her mother suggested she find a
husband to buy her hygiene products.
"Most of my friends dropped out of school because they did
not have basic things they needed like sanitary pads, just like
me," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from
Amusugut, now 19, said she had got good grades at school and
had wanted to be a nurse, but was "sold" at 16 to her husband's
family for $40 as her widowed mother struggled to make ends
STIGMA AND BULLYING
Plan International called for Uganda to reduce the cost of
sanitary pads, ensure schools had separate girls' toilets and
introduce sex education to destigmatise menstruation.
Adupa said there was a lot of ignorance around periods.
At one school, boys told aid workers they thought girls who
bled had been victims of sexual violence and drew demeaning
pictures on the blackboard.
"The effect on the girls was devastating: many skipped
school to avoid the bullying. Some never returned," Adupa said.
To tackle the stigma, several aid agencies have set up
menstrual hygiene clubs at schools across the country where
girls can make their own reusable cotton sanitary pads with
removable waterproof linings.
Boys are included in some clubs, taking the pads they make
home to their sisters.
Uganda is not the only country looking at providing free
sanitary towels as a way to boost girls' education levels.
Kenya and Zambia have also promised to supply pads to
schoolgirls - although aid agency WaterAid said Zambia had yet
to commit any funding.
Economists say keeping girls in school not only protects
them from child marriage but boosts national prosperity.
An educated girl is more likely to be economically
productive and to have healthier and better educated children of
her own, creating a ripple effect.
"We have a saying in Uganda, educate a girl, educate a
nation," Adupa said.
(Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters
Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers
humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, resilience and
climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)
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