Why one taboo was holding Ugandan women back

For any teenage girl, getting your period for the first time can be overwhelming. But in many parts of the world, it can stop girls from going to school creating significant gender inequality.

In Uganda, where talking about periods is taboo, girls risk infection due to poor management of their menstrual cycle, and don’t understand what is happening to their bodies. This leads to high school drop-out rates. But a Plan International Australia program funded by both the Australian aid budget and supporters is helping Ugandan girls understand and manage their menstrual cycles.

This is Christine’s story.

A year ago Christine’s form on the netball field plummeted. For the passionate 15-year-old who was once hailed her school’s best player, this was devastating. “I was so careful, I feared to move, I wouldn’t jump or scatter my legs,” says the teenager who lives in the rural town of Tororo in eastern Uganda.

“I was afraid and worried because I didn’t know what was happening to me. The first time I got sick, I would just lie still, be quiet and sleep. I was in so much pain.” Christine’s outlook was bleak. She often missed days of school, and when she did go she couldn’t concentrate. She was frightened, in pain and had no one to talk to. All of this because she went through the most normal thing that can happen to a teenage girl: she had her period.

For a girl in Australia, the day she gets her period can be confronting. For a girl in rural Uganda, that day can be terrifying. These girls live in a world where reproductive health is taboo – it’s not discussed at school or at home – and they are often completely unaware of what is happening to their bodies and how to care for themselves. On top of that, many girls don’t know about sanitary pads and even if they do, can rarely afford to buy them.

As a result, girls like Christine are completely vulnerable and left to guess how to manage their period. “I found a piece of carpet somewhere so I washed it and used it,” Christine explains. She then had leaks at school and was teased by boys in her class. “I feared from that time that people would laugh at me forever. I was always getting out of class, I was uncomfortable, I couldn’t concentrate and I was always checking my dress.”

Girls like Christine often avoid going to school when they have their period – this can be up to five days per month – and as a result they struggle to keep up in class. Alarmingly, one in ten African girls will drop out of school altogether and never finish their education. Girls who drop out of school are then more likely to marry early and become mothers too young, trapping them in the cycle of poverty.

These days, Christine is hard to miss as she darts, uninhibited, around her opponents and within minutes is taking aim for goal. “The menstrual hygiene project basically is about improving the knowledge, attitude and practice about menstrual hygiene management in communities … working with children in schools to see that we break that silence and some of the myths that surround menstrual hygiene,” says Jane Nyaketcho, who leads this successful Plan International Australia initiative in Christine’s community.

Importantly, it is ensuring women and girls have access to effective, low-cost menstrual hygiene products by introducing a new product – affordable, hygienic and reusable pads. “We had training on personal hygiene, on how you keep yourself safe and clean during menstruation. And then our senior teacher also came and told us about reusable pads. I saved up to buy some. It took some time to save the money but I feel so happy. I can concentrate in class, I can play netball. I am free,” says Christine.

Christine’s teacher, says the program has brought other changes at the school. “There are fewer girls skipping class. And boys are changing … they are much more supportive of the girls. They know it’s not something to be embarrassed about or to tease the girls about.  I am very proud of the students,” he says.

This campaign is backed by Australia's aid & development groups

Business for Development is for Australian Aid VGen is for Australian Aid Australian Conservation Foundation is for Australian Aid
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