By Patricia Kröll
Imagine. You are sitting in a tiny classroom with fifty other students. There are hardly enough benches for all of you, so you are squeezed onto a little bench with five other students. Then, all of a sudden you feel it – blood coming through your pants. You are on your period and blood has leaked through the cloth you are using. There will be stains on your dress now. When you get up, everyone will see it…
What do you do? You probably get out of class as quickly as you can and run home to avoid the embarrassment. Or you stop going to school at all during your period – just to avoid situations like this.
At least, that is what hundreds of thousands of girls worldwide decide to do every month. For them, menstruation is a real barrier in life. During their period they cannot go to school or do any work.
Did you know that? Admittedly, I didn’t either. Having grown up in an industrialised country, menstruation is a normal thing for me – not always comfortable, but manageable. Only when I started working for Irise International in rural Uganda did I realise what challenges menstruation poses to girls and women in other contexts. Irise is a non-profit organisation that provides menstrual health trainings and reusable pads to schoolgirls in Uganda.
I was hired as a Research Coordinator to evaluate the impact of a menstrual hygiene management program. The post immediately attracted me; too often I have witnessed that non-profit organisations do not evaluate their programs effectively or, if so, they do not share their results with others. This job with Irise, however, enabled me to do exactly that.
So what did I learn?
- An old rag in your pants. Most women in industrialised countries use disposable pads during their period. Easy to use and comfortable. But expensive. Especially for people who barely have enough resources to provide for their basic needs. Disposable pads are simply not an option for most girls in Uganda and many other countries in the world. In fact, most of the girls that took part in our evaluation study only had old rags or cloths to use during their menstruation. They are uncomfortable, often unhygienic and unreliable in terms of blood leakage. Thus, girls constantly worry about having stains on their clothes and being teased by other students. They either cannot concentrate during class or decide to stay at home. To help the girls stay in school, Irise provided them with reusable pads that are produced in their local social business. This meant a huge improvement for the girls:
“I no longer get worried; because of the pads I got I am able to do everything, even playing, jumping and sitting in class” (16-year-old girl, Western Uganda)
- Knowledge is power. We often hear this saying, but what does it mean concerning menstruation? It means that most of the girls we interviewed had no idea what happens to their bodies and how to maintain proper hygiene. It means that, for instance, girls put on their pads or cloths when they are still damp, which might have serious implications for their health. Gaining knowledge on how to manage their menstruation helped the girls to become healthier and more confident.
3. Pain is more than just pain if you do not know where it is coming from. Many women have to deal with stomach pain, back pain or headaches during their period. It puts a very high strain on us no matter where we come from. But now imagine – you do not know that pain during your period is normal. You think you have a serious disease and that you might die soon. There is no health professional that you can ask for advice. This is what many girls have to go through every month. I cannot describe the expression of relief I saw in the girls’ faces when they were told about the normalcy of menstrual pain.
4. Menstruation is normal. Almost every woman at a certain age experiences menstruation. That is common knowledge, right? Actually, no. Not for girls that have never been taught about menstruation. They feel like they are the only ones who have to deal with menstruation and that they have to keep it a secret because others will think that they are strange. Being made aware that other girls in their class experience the same thing helped to raise the girls’ self-esteem.
“The Irise program helped because I no longer fear when I am in class, because I now know it’s normal for every girl” (14-year-old girl)
5. Reusable pads and information on menstrual hygiene management – did it help? Yes, our evaluation clearly showed that the Irise program had a positive impact. Does it mean that the girls do not experience any barriers to effective menstruation management anymore? Unfortunately, no. One big problem remains: inadequate school facilities. Most of the forty schools that we visited for our evaluation study did not have any toilets with locking doors. Thus, the toilets do not provide any privacy to girls to enable them to change their pads. Furthermore, there was often only one well in school. Girls refrained from washing their pads during school, because they were too afraid that male students would make fun of them when they did so.
Overall, my experiences in Uganda demonstrated to me that providing education and reusable pads is an effective way to fight menstruation-related school absenteeism. No doubt – more has to be done. For instance, lobbying for better school facilities and raising awareness about the challenges that menstruation poses to so many girls and women worldwide.
Two of the Sustainable Development Goals are to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education’ and ‘achieve gender equality’. Indeed, gender equality starts with education – creating the same opportunities for boys and girls. If we fail to see what in reality prevents girls from going to school or concentrating in school we will never achieve equality. That is why May 28th is Menstrual Hygiene Day – to make people aware that menstruation matters to everyone, everywhere.
Patricia Kröll worked as a Research Coordinator for Irise International in Ishaka, Western Uganda. She holds an MSc in “International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies” from the London School of Economics and Political Science and has worked with CARE and Amnesty International.
Featured image shows schoolgirls taking part in an Irise menstrual health training session, 2015. Photo courtesy of Patricia Kröll.
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