We have an amazing guest post from Bella Penny, a medical student in the UK who has been doing some fantastic work around menstrual education in Uganda.
“Having access to menstrual products and enough money to afford them is something that most of us take for granted. Imagine what it would be like without. Do you make one pad last all day and risk ruining your skirt? Do you call in sick from work or school? Do you use old cleaning cloths and pieces of material to stem the flow? Or old newpapers? Or leaves?? These are questions that many women and girls in Uganda face every month. Many end up staying at home rather than risking the embarrassment of having a leakage in public. This means girls may end up missing 5-8 days a month of their schooling.
That’s a quarter or more for some girls.
In communities where it is a fight to remain in education as a girl, this only piles the odds against them. Many end up dropping out of school, or never realising their full potential. It is heart-breaking to hear from girls in this situation.
In 2014 I went to Mukono in Uganda where I met Joseph, the leader of a community action group called Generation Youth Uganda. He was well aware of the struggle local girls had with menstruation, having launched the scheme ‘Send Sanitary Pads to Ugandan Girls’ in 2012. He had been using donations to buy disposable pads and distribute them. Together, we decided to run workshops teaching women and girls to make their own cloth sanitary pads. This would be a much more sustainable way of tackling the problem. Even if women used the same old pieces of material to make pads as they had been using as menstrual protection before, having actual pads improves hygiene and effective protection no end. By taking the time and effort to make pads, this new designated role prevents women using the same rags as they use to wash the dishes, or their husbands/fathers use to wash their ‘boda-bodas’ (motorbike taxis). Knowing that the pads are designed to catch menstrual flow gives women and girls the confidence to continue with their day-to-day life.
I had made a few cloth pads before, so quickly adapted the basic design to suit the different needs of Ugandan women. Without washing machines and tumble driers, proper pad care is essential. So we made pads with removable cores that could be washed and dried separately, also allowing a wide range of absorbencies with fewer pads. Simple designs that could be easily hand-sewn were important.”
“The workshops themselves were humbling for so many reasons. Periods are a HUGE taboo in Uganda, kind of on a par with masturbation in the UK. The liberation of the women as they opened up about their struggles with menstruation was incredible. Workshops often started with furtive glances around the room and nervous giggles, but by the end everyone was sharing stories, laughing and getting stuck in to making their own pads.
Education, dispelling myths and the normalisation of menstruation was really important. If the women took nothing home with them aside from knowing that menstruation is healthy and normal, and something to be respected rather than hidden, then we were happy!
Seeing young girls realise that menstruation isn’t something to be scared of was heart-warming. Many hadn’t talked openly about it before, especially those whose families had been broken up by AIDS or other illnesses. Challenging the status-quo is difficult anywhere, but these girls were set on pushing for their right to education, periods or no periods. We met a lot of inspirational women!
At the end of workshops, the gratitude and love from everyone was overwhelming. In a way it made me very sad and frustrated, as back in the UK we don’t have to think twice about popping to Morrisons for a box of tampons. Whereas in the villages around Mukono, many women can’t afford to travel to the nearest shop, let alone buy expensive menstrual products. It doesn’t seem fair or right that such gaping inequalities should exist.
After only six weeks, I was on a plane back to the UK. Joseph and Generation Youth carried on tirelessly collecting donations and delivering workshops. The initiative has only grown and grown! Just last month they travelled to Kenya to deliver workshops to hundreds of school girls.
Over the last couple of years Joseph and his team have travelled between dozens of schools, community groups and churches across Uganda and Kenya, trying to change attitudes and teach new skills. Joseph tells me that since these workshops have begun he has noticed attitudes changing, taboos melting. Each workshop is easier to give.
He reckons that they’ve spoken to at least fifteen thousand women and girls, and has been met with enthusiasm throughout his journey.
As well as menstrual education and teaching how to make pads, Joseph still uses donations to buy cloth sanitary pads and distribute them to girls at the workshops. This can sometimes be difficult, as there are frequently more attendees than there are available kits. He has to travel to Kampala, the capital city, to buy these pads, which are quite expensive in local terms (although the equivalent of about £6 in the UK). Obviously this eats up donations very quickly. The aim is to start production of pads himself. This would cut down on costs considerably, and also provide some local employment – a win-win situation! However, the initial start-up costs have made progress very slow. That said, Joseph is working towards buying a plot of land on which to build headquarters and a production workshop – very exciting! Once pad production can be started, the hope it is that the proceeds can go towards further education and donation of pads to girls and women who can’t afford to buy them.”
“Here in the UK I have launched ‘Ecosiren’, a brand of cloth pads and accessories, with the hope that profits can help Joseph and Generation Youth in their mission to educate and equip the women of Uganda. I’m really excited to involve people from across the world, and I hope this is a good way to join Generation Youth’s efforts. Please feel free to visit my Facebook page and Etsy/Ebay stores. Any support would be very much appreciated.
I am not pretending that cloth pads are a miracle cure for all the struggles that women in Uganda have, and there are still lots of hurdles to overcome. But starting the conversation plants the seed that women deserve the same opportunities as men.
And that girls can stay in school and gain a proper education.That the option for better job prospects and economic stability can be open to everyone.That women can take control of their menstruation, rather than being controlled by it.That no woman should be ashamed or scared of her body.In some ways it’s as much about attitudes as it is about pads.
I firmly believe that having safe and effective menstrual care products should be a universal right. There’s an absolute mountain to climb to get there, but the more people we can get involved and passionate, the easier that climb will be.”
If you want to support EmpowerPads, you can purchase Bella’s pads from her Etsy store and you can donate via the just giving page (link coming soon)!