When we visited Uganda in May one of our first stops was with pupils at Rwenthuuha and Kikoda Primary Schools. We discussed the changes that they had seen since new toilet blocks and water tanks had been installed. The students, especially the young girls, were eager to tell us something very important, “I’m not afraid.”
Going through puberty is challenging enough, but for girls without clean water and toilets, puberty can be even harder.
Before our delivery partners started work at the schools, the existing toilet blocks were not structurally safe and at Kikoda primary school they had collapsed completely during heavy rainfall. Boys and girls shared only a few latrine rooms, some of which were missing doors. This lack of privacy and basic facilities combined with generations of social taboos meant that girls feared their periods and would often drop out of school for a week out of every month.
In addition to safe toilet blocks and clean running water, our delivery partners worked with the schools to establish student health clubs made up of boys and girls with the aim of promoting hygiene education and breaking down these social taboos, particularly around menstruation. These health clubs help to change attitudes and behaviours towards menstruation, and many of the learnings are taken home to family members and the wider community.
In 2007, reports from Uganda showed that a staggering 94% of girls reported problems at school during menstruation and 61% reported staying away from school during menstruation.
Today, that number is dropping due to the global response to sanitation and women’s health, and the need for adequate sanitation facilities. The girls we had the opportunity to speak with were able to tell us that they were no longer afraid of coming to school on their period, as the schools finally had a safe and private space for them to clean up.
Here is what some of them had to say:
Kengaaju Shakila, 13-year-old pupil from Rwwnthuuha Primary School
"Our school is more enjoyable these days because we also have a new girls sanitation block with a bathroom. In case a girl gets her period while at school she has somewhere to go to clean up.
Even though I have not yet started menstruation, I have learnt how to make reusable sanitary pads from cotton cloth at our health club.
I am not afraid of menstruation because at school we have a senior woman teacher who teaches girls in upper classes about menstrual management and also provides emergency assistance in case a girl get her periods while at school. I am looking forward to starting menstruation; I am not scared because its normal, every normal woman must go through this until she becomes old."
Kobugabe Rebecca, 13-year-old pupil from Rwenthuuha Primary School
"At our school we have a School Health Club where we learn about personal hygiene, making sanitary pads and keeping our school environment clean. When I lean some things from the Health Club, when I get back home, I usually tell my older sisters and parents about it."
Ninsiima Prisca, 13-year-old pupil from Rwenthuuha Primary School
"I have also learnt about menstrual hygiene, how to keep myself clean and how to make reusable sanitary pads. Every Thursday we meet with our Senior Woman teacher for counselling and guidance. In case a girl gets her periods while at school, she goes to the Senior Woman teacher for emergency pads, soap for washing dirty panties and body. I’m very confident to talk to my friends that menstruation is normal, every girl must undergo this and they should not be afraid of it.”