Image taken by Watsemba Miriam.

What happens when school girls are not able to afford sanitary pads in rural schools?

Watsemba Miriam, a documentary photojournalist, visited two schools in the Bududa district of Uganda to find out how school girls deal with their monthly periods.

In 2016, the incoming National Resistance Movement party in Uganda made a Presidential pledge to its people, promising, among other things, to address school dropout rates, promoting dignity, menstrual hygiene, and the well-being of adolescent girls in primary and secondary schools.

Eight years later, the dream is still far from being actualised in many rural schools in Uganda. The Ministry of Education and Sports promised to set up a factory for the manufacture of sanitary pads in 2017/18, and these would then be distributed at no cost to all girls in schools across the country. However, in 2024, girls in Bududa are swinging between finding alternatives to sanitary pads and paying Uganda shillings 500, per pad, during period emergencies at school.

On behalf of Missing Perspectives, Watsemba Miriam, a documentary photojournalist, visited two schools in Bududa district to find out how school girls deal with their monthly periods.

Nandudu Grace (not real name) is a 17 year old pupil at Footo Primary school, Bushiyi sub county in Biwawa village. She had her first period in August 2018, when she was 14 years old. Grace narrates that she had not been feeling well the whole morning and was not sure what was happening to her.

"When I stood up in class, there was blood on my skirt. A friend alerted me and I wrapped myself with a sweater," says Grace.

She headed to the Senior women's office, but there were many boys seated and playing in the compound, which made her feel small and embarrassed.  So Grace opted to use the back door of the school and discreetly walked back home through the banana plantations.

While Grace’s mother was able to afford sanitary pads for her first experience, it has since then become a luxury that can only be afforded two to four months a year. For the rest of the months, Grace cuts small pieces of cloth from an old bedsheet at home which she uses instead of pads. On such days, she will be able to sit and walk but not in position to play as the pieces are not as stable as a winged sanitary pad would be. Grace needs about four pieces of cloth to take her through a school day, having to change the pieces every two hours.

"When I am at home, I can wash and resume the bed sheet pieces, but at school, I have to throw them away because I can not keep them in my bag until evening," she says.

Watsemwa Lovanus, 40, the Senior Woman Teacher at Grace’s school confirms that as the school, they can only afford sanitary pads every now and then. However, in most cases of period emergencies at the school, the girls are given a piece of cloth that she keeps in a metallic case in her office. 

Watsemwa Lovanus, the Senior woman teacher at Foto Primary School with the piece of cloth from which smaller pieces are cut for girls who get period emergencies while in class.

A smaller piece is cut from the cloth and added to a piece of polythene like material which is then given to the girls to wear in such situations. 

Wanyenze Rose (not real names) goes to Footo Primary School with Grace. Her first period experience was not so different from Grace’s experience. While she made it to the Senior woman teacher’s office, she was offered a piece of cloth and polythene material to help herself. After she put on the cloth, she had to leave school and go home where she took a bath before coming back to class later in the afternoon.  Both Wanyenze and Rose wish they would have access to actual sanitary pads every month. Wanyeze narrates with pride how she was able to win a running competition for her school on Friday 12th, April 2024 because she had a pad. The pads were donated to 25 girls, by a well wisher who gave each girl a pack with 120 sanitary pad pieces,  two weeks ago. The pads were then redistributed amongst the rest of the girls at school, with each girl getting 20 pads. 

A picture of one of the girls with the 120 pack pads distributed to girls at Footo Primary School.

In Bushibuya Primary School, one of the teachers has teamed up with the school health prefect to support girls during period emergencies. The teacher buys the girls a few packs to start the term off with his own money. The pads are kept by the school health prefect. Thereafter, when a girl gets a period emergency, she communicates to the prefect who provides one pad at a cost of Ugx 500 inorder to keep the emergency box stocked up. The school provides a bathroom, basin, soap, water and one shared lesu (wrapper) for girls to take a shower in case of an emergency. 

The bathroom basin and water avaikabk for girls during period emergencies at Bushibuya Primary School.

The bathroom allocated to the girls for emergencies is located across the road from the school main gate. Once communication is made to the school health prefect, girls are directed here to take a shower and clean up. If there is a need for a knicker change, an extra 2000 ugx will be paid by the girl on top of the 500 ugx for the pad.

A picture of some of the underwe availed in the period emergency bathroom.

Ikigo Jennifer Rose, 26, a teacher at Bushibuya Primary school says while the condition may not be the best, it's better than nothing. Instead of waiting for the government to execute on its promises, the staff at Bushibuya Primary School have improvised their own solutions. Ikigo prides herself on the fact their small fixes have helped their female students to stay in school amidst period emergency challenges. A report by UNESCO found that one in ten girls in Sub Saharan Africa miss school while on their period. This 3-4 days absence accounts for about 24 days across a school year, and approximately 165 days of learning over four years.

A student at Bushibuya Primary School.

The limitation with the local period emergency solution at Bushibuya Primary School is that it can not be economically sustained by any of the pupils in the school. In many cases the girls will only opt for the solution on day one of their first period, in case it happens at school. There after, they resort to alternatives during months when their parents or guardians are not able to afford sanitary pads. Joweria Mercy (not real names), 17 says she puts on three to four knickers during the months when her mother is not able to afford the Ugx 3,500 for pads. ‘On those days, I usually don’t come to class because I don’t want to be embarrassed.’ At the end of her period, Joweria will come back to school and explain her absence to the teachers and carry on.

While the Minister of Education and Sports, Hon. Janet Kataaha Museveni has several times emphasized that provision of sanitary towels and food at school should be primarily a responsibility of parents, many families in rural areas can barely afford spending Ugx 3,500 on a monthly basis per girl child, for sanitary pads.

Patricia Newumbe, 16, at Bushibuya Primary School says that while she was able to pay Ugx 2,500 for a knicker and a pad when she had her first period in February 2023, she has had to improvise with old petticoats on many other days.

Picture of a girl with a wrapper at the period emergency bathroom used by girls at Bushibuya Primary School. According to the Senior Woman Teacher, about 300 girls in the school get their monthly period. It is a fact that any of these girls who has had a period emergency at school has used this same wrapper to take a shower. 

In 2015, the Ugandan Ministry of Education and Sports (MoES) published a Circular on Provision of Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) facilities to all primary and secondary schools. This Circular recommends provision of clean, private, toilet facilities; regular supply of water and soap; emergency supplies of pads and painkillers; training of teachers, health assistants, and inspectors; and involvement of parents in supporting and providing menstrual health  information and materials. While it is on record that the government is in works to find a sustainable way of availing free sanitary pads to girls in schools in Uganda, the wait has been long overdue, which has normalized period poverty for many girls in Uganda.

A girl walking into a classroom at Footo Primary School, Bushiyi sub county in Biwawa village.

Furthermore, there is a considerable knowledge gap on menstrual health among young girls in schools. All six of the girls Missing Perspectives spoke to during this story project had no idea what exactly was happening to their bodies at the time of their first period (menarche).

In Uganda, there's a long way to go before girls and women tune into the full power of their menstrual cycle. In the meantime, efforts to improve period poverty, dignity, and access to better resources like pads and tampons are vital.