A cheap, washable sanitary pad is allowing girls to get back to school in Uganda. Jane Labous reports on how AfriPads are discreetly changing teenagers’ futures
WHEN teenager Catherine first got her period, she used to bunk off school because she found it too embarrassing to deal with the rags.
“Sometimes blood would come out onto my skirt,” she explains, “or the rags can even fall down when you are walking.”
In Uganda, as in most low-income countries around the world, menstruation is a little talked about, yet immense and stressful problem for teenage girls.
Faced with the prospect of using rags or kitenge, newspaper, leaves or cotton wool to curb the flow of blood, most girls choose to stay off school when their period comes.
Some 94% of girls in Uganda report having some problems at school thanks to menstruation, according to a WaterAid Uganda study in 2013, with 61% missing school due to related issues.
But missing school for an extended time once a month means they fall behind in the curriculum, putting them at an immediate disadvantage to their male peers.
Many girls skip as many as 24 days out of a total Ugandan school year of 220 days – meaning they miss out on 11 per cent of the school curriculum.
Draw back from the situation and these millions of absences lead to generations of girls in poor countries with fewer qualifications, limited access to job opportunities and less time spent building social networks, confidence and life skills.
Maureen, 16, says she has missed a lot of school due to her period.
“I started my period when I was 15,” she explains. “My mother never talked to me about it, and when I first saw it, I was scared. My friends told me that when I start my periods I should use a rag. They didn’t explain it – they just told me to do it. So I tore up my old clothes and made the rags to use.”
“Every month I would miss three or four days. I was fearful of going to school when I had it.”
Perhaps this is why AfriPads is quietly taking Ugandan villages by storm.
The simple yet discreetly revolutionary system of washable, cloth sanitary pads that last for up to one year, at a fraction of the cost of an equivalent supply of disposable pads, is convincing girls to go back to school during their periods.
Each kit contains a holder, pads and a storage bag to store pads if they cannot be washed immediately.
At USh12,000 to 15,000 (£2.75 to £3.40) per kit, even girls and women who can’t afford disposable sanitary towels – which can cost around USh42,000 or £9.60 a year – can afford this hygienic alternative to rags.
Sophia Klumpp, who co-founded the company in Uganda in 2009, says the key is the pads’ simplicity.
“[It’s] the ease of use, the price point and being able to buy something once with the security of knowing they have nothing to worry about for the next 12 months,” she says.
“The worst-case scenario is for a girl to stay at home from school altogether because they have no access to anything.”
At schools where AfriPads are distributed, teachers have reported that absenteeism has dropped sharply, as girls who previously did not have access to proper sanitary pads no longer stay at home when they have their periods.
“Girls who use AfriPads say they’re more comfortable now,” says one teacher. “They can run and play which they were afraid to do before.”
Both Catherine and Maureen now both use AfriPads, and are back in school full-time.
“All the girls coming to school every day and our grades are better,” says Maureen. “No one is upset about getting their period any more.”
Viola, 15, keeps her Afripad kit in a bag hanging on a wall at her home in Tororo in eastern Uganda. She used to use expensive disposable pads, and when there was no money, she’d use rags.
“AfriPads are good because they have kept me clean,” Viola says. “I’ve been using them for seven months.”
Florence, 19, is a pupil at Aputiri primary school, which participates in a Menstrual Health Management programme supported by the charity Plan International.
The programme, currently happening in 53 villages in Lira, Alebtong and Tororo, includes the distribution of AfriPads to local ‘dealers’ at a subsidised rate, as well as drama and awareness sessions on child marriage, domestic and sexual abuse and menstrual hygiene.
The talks are given to both girls and boys to help de-stigmatise the subject of menstruation and encourage communication on the subject.
In the playground, girls play netball, talk and giggle in huddles. Florence says the pads are better than cotton wool because they don’t leak, and she can do everything she would do normally.
“I used not to go to school because the blood would come out. But now I’m ok.”
She is helped by teenage health prefect Peninah Mamayi, who is also revising for exams.
“I wanted to be a health prefect so I could help my friends be clean,” explains Mamayi.
“I tell them to bathe daily so they don’t smell, and to wash their AfriPads very well, and to dry them very well.”
Mamayi says the pads have improved her life dramatically. “They don’t disturb me, and I can just sit and be comfortable. Even if I play or I jump, nothing happens.”
Darren Saywell, WASH Director at children’s rights charity Plan International, believes the programme’s multifaceted approach has helped address all issues relating to menstruation, including the fact that menstruating women are often stigmatised.
“By training children and village health team members on menstrual hygiene management, and though community outreach and awareness initiatives, the programme works to break the silence surrounding menstruation and to start discussions at the community level,” he explains.
“Thus the program helps to address both the physical and social challenges related to menstrual hygiene management in these communities.”
Wankya runs a stall in front of her home in Tororo selling AfriPads to passers-by, and has been on the radio as personality ‘Madam Wankya’ to tell women about them.
Passers-by stop to buy the pads and find out from Madam Wankya how to use and then dry them in the sun.
Women who have heard her on the radio travel especially to find her and buy the pads for themselves and their daughters.
Madam Wankya is just one of the many women in Tororo who have become official AfriPads dealers, running small businesses selling the pads.
The groups of up to 30 people – mainly women – are trained by Plan in business skills, then save money together to buy stocks of the pads, which they sell on to make an income.
Another dealer, Sarah Angwech, is selling pads to William Okia, the father of five daughters.
“AfriPads have reduced my expenditure because I have five girls,” says William. “It’s USh35,00 (80 pence) per disposable, times five girls. You can see how AfriPads have saved me a lot of money!”
Back in Kitengeesa where the pads are manufactured, the once tiny AfriPads factory now employs 100 women and several men, and produces approximately 700 kits of sanitary towels every week.
Joseph Gabula is a driver and Irene Nakayima is the production manager at the factory.
“We’ve been able to acquire a piece of land and build our own home from our income,” says Irene, who is married to Joseph. “I was also able to complete a diploma in social administration.”
Rose Nalule, who works in the quality control room, says the job has made a huge difference to her life. “My life is improving, and I’m able to educate my children, in order to get a better future.”
But it is Irene who sums up how everyone seems to feel about AfriPads. “I’m really very proud of my job,” she says with a wide grin. “And I’m proud of the difference we’re making for girls in Africa.”
Written by Jane Labous