At fifteen years of age, I had known about menstruation from my girl friends at school. The science lessons had only attempted to teach the human anatomy of the reproductive system but not how to deal with menstruation. I had observed girls go through a number of challenges and shared their dilemmas with me whenever they got their menses. I waited for my menarche with nervousness and fright!
All through my adolescence, I faced a number of challenges. I don’t remember ever using the sanitary pads or tampons at the time. I could not access nor afford sanitary pads; the only material to my disposal for managing menstruation was toilet paper/tissue (though a health risk and unhygienic) nor could I boldly ask my mother for sanitary pads. It’s a taboo to discuss sexual issues with parents. The ‘culture of silence’ is experienced even with menstruation issues. In my community, it is very common for girls to be left to cope alone at best with rags or other insufficient protection.
Adolescence is a critical stage of life for the transition from childhood to woman hood. Many body changes take place and if not well managed can overwhelm and distort focus of the adolescent especially in education. Therefore, this is a period for the formation of the adolescents’ identity and foundation. To me, menarche came with anxiety and fear. Seeing two of my classmates (girls) drop out of school for marriage one year after menarche was astonishing. They were condemned to become wives on the onset of menarche by their parents who saw this as a sign of ripeness for motherhood and marital prospects.
In my experience, the ‘moon- days’ came with depression, embarrassment, mood swings, pain and discomfort. I remember the day one of the top girls in my class (Agnes Aleper) stained her uniform dress in class, this provoked ridicule from boys as well as from other girls. She was accused of having sex the previous day. This is one of the myths still prevalent in my community. This kills the self esteem and confidence of the girl. Probably, the reason I never saw Agnes in school again. The time I stained my dress was such an embarrassment, it made me more scared, stigmatized and discriminated. I was only saved by a friend in class who took me to her home within the school teachers’ quarters to clean up and change.
Some people argue that this condition is merely a natural passage of life, and therefore not a major cause for concern. But it is the challenges it comes with, the interference in the daily routines and its long term effects on the girl, especially if not well managed that are my concerns. These ‘moon-days’ put girls in a disadvantaged position and needs to be dealt with by providing lasting solutions for its management. Studies conducted on girls revealed that 10 percent of girls are likely to drop out of school due to poor menstrual management.
Effects such as dysmenohrroea, cramps, headache and discomfort can be so grave to warrant bed rest and pain relievers. This means missing class and participation is some important activities. Like I was, very few girls are knowledgeable about puberty, menstruation and reproductive health, neither are the boys. Although government of Uganda put a tax waiver on sanitary pads to improve on access and affordability, this price is however still prohibitive especially for households with more than one girl. The Ministry of Education and Sports does not provide free sanitary pads for girls in school citing it as costly. It should be noted that the long-term benefits of providing sanitary pads are big.
Overall, sanitation for girls is very poor in schools in Uganda. Whereas a boy may take only three minutes to use a toilet, a girl may take thrice that time if she is in her menses. Girls need more latrine stances than boys to cater for the long waiting time. Or else she misses part of the lessons. Water is on many instances (if available) far away from the toilets and thus an inconvenience for the girl to clean up. Even the bath rooms are either lacking privacy or absent. Putting on a pad for 10 hours without changing therefore puts the girl at a risk of infection and bad odor.
It high time governments make menstruation management an integral part of the education programme. Provide sex education for students to appreciate and understand adolescence. The sanitation in schools should improve. Include women architects and engineers in architectural design of school sanitation standards for gender sensitivity. Schools should be equipped with sanitary pads and pain killers for emergencies ; free sanitary pads be provided to all schools; promotion of local initiatives like MAKAPADS projects producing free sanitary pads using local materials for sustainability. Overall, provision of girl-friendly health promoting learning environments should be priority of government to keep girls in school.Girls Transform the World 2013