When Pauline, 18, got her first period at school, she had no idea what was happening to her.
She’d never been told to expect her period and was horrified to discover her skirt soaked in blood in front of all her classmates.
“The boys started laughing at me and I felt ashamed,” she says. “I did not go back to school for two months due to fear of being embarrassed by boys.”
Pauline’s experience is one shared by many girls in Uganda. In fact, girls who are menstruating miss one to three days of school every month and this is due to a myriad of reasons.
Often girls struggle to manage their periods because many schools lack toilets with doors and many don’t have clean water and soap. In addition, many girls are unable to afford sanitary pads so they either stay at home or rely on unhygienic, uncomfortable materials such as stones or banana leaves to prevent accidents.
Stigma is another reason why girls miss school during their periods. Girls are teased, taunted and perceived as “unclean” by boys and sometimes teachers too.
Aleu, 15, used to be one of those boys who would tease girls on their periods.
“I must admit that I used to laugh along when this happened to a girl,” he says. “Now I know better.”
Thanks to Plan International-supported menstrual health youth clubs, boys like Aleu are learning more about the negative stigmas associated with menstruation, and are working to help girls overcome the shame they’re made to feel about having their periods.
“I learned that it is perfectly normal for a girl to start her period at a certain age,” he says.
An issue for everyone. Period.
Through the clubs, young people between the ages of 11 and 18 years discuss taboos around menstruation, and both boys and girls work together to educate the wider community about the harmful effects of teasing girls.
“Some boys laugh at me because I help girls,” says Samuel, 14, Aleu’s friend and fellow club member.
“We talk about periods at the club. It is normal, nothing to laugh and be mean about. That’s something I also tell the other boys in class. And I also tell the children in the neighborhood. I tell the girls next door that they don’t have to be afraid when they get their period.”
In addition, boys and girls work together to make reusable sanitary pads out of cotton and plastic which the girls can take home and use. Any surplus of pads is sold to pay for repairs to the school building.
Youth clubs working to keep more girls in school
Along with menstrual health clubs, Plan International’s Champions of Change clubs are supporting and empowering youth to advocate for gender equality and girls’ rights to education in Uganda.
Right now, only 57% of girls complete their primary education in Uganda, with menstruation being one of the many barriers keeping them from attending school. For some, lack of access to resources – including sanitary pads and safe, adequate toilets – and the stigmas associated with menstruation cause girls to drop out of school, making them far more likely to end up in early marriages or becoming teenage mothers.
That’s why Champions of Change club members are petitioning local government to provide free sanitary pads to schoolgirls and sexual health education to all youth.
So far, the campaigners are already influencing change. After collecting 39,000 signatures, the youth were able to convince the government to implement a new mentoring program which will train health workers on how to provide sexual health services to young people.
But of course there is more work to do, and the youth – both boys and girls together – are working to ensure that girls across Uganda can access their rights to education.
Speak out to end period shaming
Without open conversations about menstruation, many girls are denied the basic resources they need — like sanitary pads and safe, private washroom facilities — denying girls the chance to manage their periods in a healthy and dignified way.
At the root of this problem is poverty and inequality. Too many girls miss out on school and other vital opportunities, simply because they have their periods.
It does not have to be this way. Raise your voice to shatter the silence and stigma that surrounds menstruation.