Hygienic pad project helps women help each other

KAMPALA, UGANDA — Women have two options when their period arrives. They can spend an entire month’s income on a box of sanitary pads, or they can stay home and bleed.

For many girls, bleeding is the more realistic option. On average, a box of pads costs about 3,500 Ugandan shillings. A week of menstruation typically requires two boxes, and with the Ugandan minimum wage at 6,000 shillings per month ($1.67), buying menstrual products is simply out of the question for thousands of school girls.

This economic burden is especially challenging for girls in school—both secondary and university. It is not uncommon for women to withdraw in order to earn money for their families. With menstrual products prohibitively expensive, girls often drop-out rather than face the ridicule and embarrassment of bleeding in class.

The Ugandan government estimates that 30 percent of girls from low-income families withdraw from school because they lack feminine hygiene products. That is roughly one in 10 Ugandan school girls.

These drop-out rates often lead to girls engaging in cross-generational relationships; adolescents involved in sexual relationships with adults. As a result, young girls frequently contract HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, from their more experienced partners.

There is a direct correlation between efforts to keep girls in school and cross-generational practices. It is common for girls in Uganda to trade sex for money, gifts, and basic needs to support their families and themselves. These basic needs often include hygienic products because girls want to stay in school. Girls who are able to stay in school are less likely to marry early and are better able to negotiate safe sex, decreasing their chances of contracting HIV.

Spools of pink thread are mounted on UYAHF’s single sewing machine to create sanitary pads. It is common for girls to withdraw from school when they get their period, due to lack of menstrual supplies. (Nicole McPheeters | The Media School)

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) across Uganda have campaigned for government funded sanitary pads as a way to decrease the female dropout rate and the HIV rate in young women. During his 2015 election campaign, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni promised that all universal primary education (UPE) funded schools would be provided with free pads for their student populations. However, earlier this year, First Lady and Minister of Education and Sports Janet Museveni announced that her husband’s promise would go unfulfilled because the government lacked sufficient funds.

NGOs continue to pursue other efforts as well. Inside their main office in Kampala, the Uganda Youth and Adolescents Health Forum (UYAHF) is working to aid community girls. They have converted a side room into a small factory. The floor is covered in strips of pink fabric, buttons, and sewing needles. Light from the room’s single window illuminates the pink thread mounted on a single sewing machine which is stationed on a fold out table. This is the center of the Vine Pads Project, where women craft reusable, sustainable menstrual pads. Cotton is cut and sewn into the shape of a generic pad and finished with two buttons, used for fastening. The pads are washable, reusable, and retrospectively cost less. A package of vine pads costs 6,000 shillings. While that is still a lot of money for many Ugandans, a Vine pad lasts for a year rather than a few hours.

The project director of UYAHF Gorreti Nagawa discusses efforts the NGO is taking to further decrease the cost of their pads.

“We are currently in the process of working together with the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) to come up with a standard guideline for reusable sanitary pads and an issue of pricing has come up, so stakeholders are most likely to reduce the price to about 1 dollar.”

Most of the women in the shop are have dropped out of school. Some are young mothers. Others are HIV-positive, and still others are victims of sexual or gender based violence.

Nagawa says the Vine Pad Project has seen positive results.

“For the girls involved in production and marketing they have been able to acquire enterprising skills and knowledge, and we believe that when we start making sales many will be able to get some income to meet their basic needs and look after their children since majority are single mothers.”

The manufacturing skills they learn help them earn a stable income, and that means the need to engage in cross-generational or transactional relationships decreases.

Project Director Goretti Nagawa holds a pad sewn by women of UYAHF. The Vine Pad Project was created as a livelihood venture, to secure a sustainable income for girls. (Nicole McPheeters | The Media School)

Sewing pads is just one operation UYAHF has created to assist adolescent women in obtaining a sustainable income in a safe space. The sanitary pad project in particular, provides them with necessary hygienic products that would otherwise be unaffordable.

“Our products have taken center stage in improving the lives of adolescent girls and young women from very poor and vulnerable backgrounds through promoting menstruation with dignity,” says Nagawa. “They are at least able to attend school during their menstruation periods and won’t miss classes. This has promoted their right to education, health and in a long run, they are able to secure their future and achieve their potential.”