By Ashiraf Ssebandeke
ON Tuesday, September 10, Members of Parliament (MPs) from across the political divide unanimously agreed that the budget for Internal Affairs ministry should not be passed unless the Government finds money for buying sanitary towels for female inmates.
On Wednesday, the State Minister for Internal Affairs, James Baba returned to the House and announced that the Government had found sh94.5m for sanitary towels.
This seems as if the Government had not prioritised the health of female prisoners and the health hazards associated with using unhealthy materials to manage the monthly periods.
On Tuesday, September 17, a week after, in Kenya, they launched a campaign dubbed “Keep the girl child in school”. Under this campaign, school going girls shall receive free sanitary towels throughout the year.
Lack of sanitary towel or pads as commonly referred to is not only problem for the female inmate but it cuts across female groups in the country. The natural process of menstruation comes as a big problem to girls in many parts of Uganda contributing to both disempowerment and health risks.
For young girls, menstruation is an addition to the heap of gender disparities they have to face in life. Despite the fact that there is a free UPE and USE in Uganda, many rural and semi - rural girls drop out of school at puberty due to lack of sanitary towels/pads.
In order to stem the flow of monthly periods the girls use anything from rags, tree leaves, old clothes, toilet paper, newspapers, cotton wool or literally anything that can do the job.
Educating girls is widely regarded as one of the best ways to improve the economy and health of developing countries. However, girls consistently fare less well academically than boys. Academic performance correlates closely with school attendance and absenteeism and drop out rates are high for rural Ugandan girls for reasons often linked to the reproductive biology.
Only 38% of Uganda girls complete primary school and only 13% will attend secondary education. In Uganda where 85% of Ugandans live in rural poverty earning an average of $300 a year. More than 50% of the population is under 15 years old and the education of these children is critical for Uganda's economic development.
Every week of the month one or two girls have to stay away from school when they are menstruating. This means each girl has to stay away from school for three weeks in the 12 weeks they have to be in school. A girl absent from school due to menstruation for four days in 28 days a month loses 13 learning days equivalent to two weeks of learning in every school term.
It is estimated that within the four years of Ordinary Secondary level the same girl loses 156 days of learning equivalent to almost 24 weeks out of 144 weeks of learning in O'level. Consequently a girl child potentially becomes a "school drop out" while she is attending school.
More than half of the Uganda school girls who drop out of school in upper primary classes do so because of lack of separate toilet facilities and easy access to water sources. Also the bullying and psychological torture they go through when they have just started their menstruation periods.
Alternatively young girls are forced to skip school during the time they experience monthly periods to avoid both the cost of pads or use of cloths and the psychological torture. The prospect of coping with the bodily change can be significant challenge because of few people who are willing to provide information or advice. In addition, due to the use of improper methods to contain the menstrual flow.
Young girls may develop bodily odours that will lead to social exclusion within peer group thereby impacting negatively on the young girls’ confidence. The need for affordable sanitary wear for girls is indeed a major public health issue that government needs to prioritise in their planning.
Menstruation has become the undeclared basis for the social exclusion of young girls. Sanitary protection is an urgent need among girls and needs to be made affordable so that poor and marginalised groups can have access. No girl child must be disadvantaged by the natural process of menstruation.
The Government, civil society organisations and other players need to work together to ensure that appropriate services are made available.
Writer is the country representative, African Sickle cell News and World Report