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Menstrual hygiene challenges for vulnerable girls in Uganda

Growing up, I, like many others, experienced first-hand the difficulties that arise when a girl cannot access proper sanitary protection during her period.

When I first started my periods in Primary Five, I faced a dilemma that is all too familiar to many young girls in Uganda. My single mother struggled to make ends meet and, as a result, she could not afford disposable or reusable sanitary pads. My only option was to use old pieces of cotton cloth, which were uncomfortable and often led to infections.

This continued until I joined secondary school in 2013, when sanitary pads were a requirement. My entire school life was marked using old cotton clothes, except for a brief break during my Senior Six vacation when one NGO provided us with reusable pads. These pads have been a blessing in my life. They are comfortable and washable and have supported me throughout my university years.

However, my concerns extend beyond me. It is about the critical situation faced by girls in rural areas who have had to drop out of school due to the challenges posed by menstruation, such as lack of access to sanitary pads. It is about millions of girls who endure stigma and discrimination because of their periods and those at risk of deadly infections due to unhygienic traditional methods.

For these girls, reusable pads, which are a more affordable and sustainable alternative than disposable pads, provide an opportunity for dignified and safe periods while keeping their dreams alive.

Most of the reusable sanitary pads have been scientifically approved and can serve a girl for up to three years. The benefits of using these pads are numerous, including environmental conservation since they require water for washing and provide hours of protection without staining or discomfort.

What happens when there are no reusable pads and limited access to disposable ones? Vulnerable girls are left with limited options, including resorting to unsanitary practices, trading their bodies for necessities like pads, facing an increased risk of teenage pregnancy, and a higher susceptibility to contracting HIV.

I have heard about policies on menstrual health, like school latrine designs approved with changing rooms for girls, tax waiver on sanitary pads, but these have not been implemented. What about tagging emergency sanitary pads to capitation grant? Can we find a way to provide emergency sanitary pads for girls in school?

The lack of sanitation and hygiene facilities and access to clean and safe water in schools and communities poses a significant challenge. Many girls in rural areas lack changing rooms in schools. Given these circumstances, how can we expect these girls to manage their periods with dignity and without compromising their health or education?

My humble request is for us to support the reusable pads initiative while expediting a comprehensive solution that ensures every girl has access to menstrual hygiene materials, including information without stigma and discrimination.

The writer is a Girls Act member and former student, Makerere University.

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