When Hammidah Nattabi started to menstruate at age 13 while attending Ndoddo Church of Uganda Primary School, she did not know what to do and eventually turned to tell her mother. “She said she had no money to buy pads, and advised me to stay home until I finished my period,” Nattabi says. Natabi’s grandmother Sarah Nnabagereka, 50, a farmer, also cannot afford to buy sanitary pads for her granddaughter every month.
A packet of factory-made sanitary pads in Uganda costs between 3,000 and 5,000 Ugandan shillings (85 cents to $1.40), beyond what many families earn in a day.
The high cost of menstrual hygiene products often leads girls to exchange sex for money to buy them, exposing the girls to risks such as early unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. So in the first four months after Nattabi began menstruating, she missed school at least three days each month.
Her experience is typical for girls and women in many rural communities across Africa, who experience difficulties in managing their periods at home, at school, or at work. In addition to lacking hygienic menstrual products, they often don’t have access to clean water and sanitation and, perhaps most critically, information about menstruation.
With manufactured and store-bought menstrual products still financially inaccessible for most Ugandans, the Rotary-USAID partnership is supporting schools in teaching students how to make their own sanitary pads from cheaper, locally sourced materials. Inside one of the classrooms at Ndoddo Church of Uganda Primary School, a group of pupils listens attentively as the instructor, Resty Nakatudda, demonstrates how to make reusable pads. Nakatudda is a health and hygiene officer with Joy Initiatives Uganda, one of the sub-grantees of USAID’s Uganda Sanitation for Healthy Activity.
A typical session begins with the teacher giving a talk on sexual reproductive health and menstrual hygiene in general. She talks to the boys as well, to ensure they also understand. “Now we are going to make pads,” she says as she demonstrates. “We shall have a cotton cloth, polythene paper, a liner, a needle, threads, and a button. The cotton cloth is going to be on the top so that when we menstruate, the blood is absorbed and it does not leak.”
After going through each step in the pad-making process, students come forward one by one to demonstrate what they have learned. They also receive printed instructions for making the pads. After the training, girls are encouraged to make pads for their own use. The boys donate theirs to their sisters or other girls in the community.” Involving boys helps to destigmatize the topic and limit any teasing. “From the feedback we have been getting, boys no longer shame girls when they stain their uniforms. They are offering all the support that they can give,” said Nakatudda.
To achieve maximum benefit, the training has also been extended to parents, which Nakatudda says is critical in passing on basic knowledge and information about menstrual hygiene management, including how parents can help support their daughters in managing menstrual symptoms such as pain. Most have been supportive; at some schools, parents are contributing money for materials to make pads that can be distributed to girls when they need them. “Since I started making my own pads, I can engage in activities like cooking and fetching water without worrying. And I never have to skip school,” said Nattabi.
Reporting by freelance journalist Evelyn Lirri and photography by Andrew Esiebo. This blog was originally published on Rotary International-USAID WASH Partnership website.