Keeping Girls in School, One Period at a Time

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Africa » Uganda » Western Region
July 31st 2015
Published: August 1st 2015
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Thank you to everyone who helped make this day possible! Thank you to everyone who helped make this day possible! Thank you to everyone who helped make this day possible!

("Webare" means thanks you in the Runyankore language)
Ok, I know I said in the last blog the pass-out was my favourite day of the summer, but that’s not entirely true anymore. It WAS my favourite day until we got to go to a primary school and teach girls how to use and sew reusable menstrual pads.

So here’s some background on this story:

Way back in May, Laura and I visited Kihwa Primary School in the Nyamuyanja community to drop off some donations she brought from home. The head teacher took us for a tour of the school and mentioned one of the big problems girls face at their school is when they get their monthly periods. Most… actually, I’m going to assume all, of the children come from very impoverished families, many that can barely afford to feed their kids and send them to school, let alone also afford to buy menstrual pads. Often when girls are on their periods they are forced to stay at home and miss school, which over time can obviously have a significant impact on their grades, and in many cases girls eventually drop out entirely.

Laura and I then went on a hunt through all of Mbarara trying to track down reusable pads to bring back to the school. We had zero luck and not a single person we asked knew anything about them. It was then I decided to contact my mom back in Canada to see if she could locate some in Saskatoon for a reasonable price. She was able to find a few, but at $8-12 a pad it would have been far too expensive for us to buy enough to really help a lot of the girls at the school. The pads themselves weren’t too complicated to make so she suggested we buy fabric and she could sew some up herself.

My mom and I put a fair amount of thought into this project during these initial stages; like I mentioned in another blog, developmental work is a huge challenge because of all the intersectional factors that need to be considered. For instance:

What material should be used? Should we include a waterproof layer, or will it be uncomfortable in this hot climate?

Will the girls have access to water to clean their pads when they are at school?

How can they dry their pads in private?

Will they have a private space to change their pads?

Will the girls even have underwear so they can wear them?

How can we make girls feel comfortable using them?

What about something more sustainable and long term like the Diva Cup?

And probably so many more questions that after countless lost hours of sleep analyzing this I still will have missed.

We decided to rule out the Diva Cup for now. There is far too much importance on preserving young girls’ virginity here, and although Diva Cups have no affect on virginity, this culture doesn’t want to take any risk jeopardizing the girl’s purity. In a country where tampons are viewed in a negative light for the same reasons we figured a plastic cup you shove up your vagina every month might be a hard sell. Additionally, hygiene is a huge factor with Diva Cups because if they aren’t cleaned properly there is a higher risk of infection than there are with pads. With a little help and some research for the best pads for this climate and conditions, my mom found some patterns online, made a few modifications and after a couple prototypes and a few days, we had our first reusable pad to ship to Uganda! The style we went with has two parts to it. One is a sleeve that contains a waterproof layer; this is the part of the pad that straps onto the underwear. The second is a detachable liner. The liner is the absorbent part which is folded into thirds and held into place on the sleeve by ribbons. Each liner looks pretty similar to a square face towel; we liked this design because then the liner can be hung to dry without looking like it is part of a period pad - just a square cloth, nothing to see here, folks! We also went with bold colours (but nothing too light, because well, stains) and patterns as that is what is most popular with clothing here in Uganda. Besides, it makes them more fun looking for the girls.

In an effort to make as many reusable pads as possible, I made a Facebook post asking if anyone wanted to help sew some for us. I got an amazing response from friends so my mom made several templates, bought more fabric and distributed it to anyone interested in lending a hand. I even found help across the country, and had a friend round up a crew in Montreal to make the pad liners and they shipped them to Saskatoon in just a few short days. Meanwhile, while all of this was happening I was contacting a couple organizations based in Uganda who do training days on how to make reusable pads. They came with quite a price tag, but if they could do the training while we were still here I was hoping to crowd fund to cover the cost. However, they never did reply (maybe eventually they still will, we all know how African Time works by now), so I was left to my own devices to get everything sorted.

Within about two weeks, my mom, and a handful of pad makers back home had sewn almost 100 pads, each with two removable liners. They are absolutely incredible, and I can’t thank them enough for doing that. Claire was flying from Saskatoon to Uganda early July, so my mom packaged up all the pads, along with extra fabric, templates, and instructions and shipped it off with her. When they arrived, Claire and I made plans with Vivian to discuss how we should go about doing a training day in the communities. Vivian agreed that Kihwa school made for an excellent candidate for the project; they were just finishing completion of separate girls and boys bathrooms which were completely enclosed and included a private area for changing. They had water facilities, so girls could properly clean the liners and themselves. They are also a great school and think long into the future of their students - they currently are using a vegetable garden to teach students what it means to care and raise a family, but more importantly are using it to give students life skills in case they don’t go far enough academically. Claire also put me in contact with Rose, the wife of one of our paravets, who can sew, loved the idea, and agreed to help teach at the training day.

The weekend before the training Brit, Sue and I went with Vivian to buy proper material so the girls could make some pads at the training. Vivian took us to a massive outdoor used clothing market where we rummaged
Their finished liners!Their finished liners!Their finished liners!

A tad crooked, but not bad for her first one
through heaping piles of unwanted clothing and blankets the Western World no longer had use for. Here, we managed to find old fleece blankets that could be made into the liners, baby crib pads perfect for the water proof layer, and an old floral bed sheet to make more sleeves.

The big day finally came and I was actually quite nervous (and excited, but very nervous); I barely slept for days leading up to it as I tried to iron out all the details of the day and make to-do lists. Armed with all the supplies we could possibly need, along with several of the LCP students who came to help out, we all made our way to the school. We would be working with all the girls from grades 5 to 7, so we divided them into two groups to give them more one on one training time. I gave a brief intro and then Rose had the floor. I assisted her when she needed it, and added a few things here and there, but for the most part she ran with it and did an incredible job! The girls and the teachers paid such close attention the entire time and were so excited about the pads. Once the instructions on how to properly use the pads were over, we had each girl sew one liner. We didn’t have time to teach each girl how to sew the sleeve, but maybe in the future we could. The head teacher thought that as long as they had a tailor to make the sleeves for a reasonable price, the girls could continue to make liners and just buy a new sleeve when theirs wore out.

By the end of the day we taught 87 girls how to make reusable, washable pad liners, and we gave each girl one of the sleeves with two liners made by my family and friends back home. We also gave each girl a sewing needle and left most of the sewing materials and fabric with the school; we gave the rest to Rose so she could make more sleeves for them. When the training was done the head teacher gave us one of the most heartfelt thank you’s I may have ever heard; I had to hold back tears. She told us they would not be selfish and would spread what they’ve learned that day to as many communities they can, so they can have a bigger role in helping girls stay in school and get an education. She believes projects like this can and will eventually change the dynamics of the country. Like I mentioned in my previous blog, educating girls has more power in global change than educating boys. Women and girls raise the families and pass on their knowledge to the next generation of the population; empowered mothers will empower their daughters. In the words of the head teacher, “when you teach girls, you don’t teach an individual, you teach the nation.” And I couldn’t agree more.

If you’ve known me for any length of time, or spent more than a few minutes creeping my Facebook, you’d quickly learn that I’m a very proud feminist, and women and girls’ rights mean the world to me. The success of this day was more important to me than I know how to put into words - this was one of the most meaningful projects I have been a part of in my life. So thank you, thank you, thank you again to everyone who helped make this happen! Especially my mom, because I could not have done this without her! Love you, mom!

The rest of the week was similar to the previous, as we continued to finish up our vaccination campaigns, leaving just a couple communities that still needed to have their second round of vaccines finished. Brit and I bought all the supplies and are going to leave it with Susanne and Joseph to finish after we leave to Entebbe next week. Later in the week I officially turned a year older, and celebrated a second birthday in a row in Uganda. Lena and Brit surprised me with gift cards to get a massage, manicure and pedicure at a local salon in town which I am so pumped for! I need all of those, and I feel I’ve earned it after all the field work. Us VWB interns, the LCP students, Anna (the dogsitter) and Shafiq all went out for supper and the crew bought a cake for Christie and I - it was Christie’s birthday two days after mine. We then finished off the night with a couple drinks and shots at the nearby Club Vegas. All in all it
So excited! So excited! So excited!

They were thrilled to receive the extra fabric, scissors, thread and other materials we had left over from the training day!
was a really fun birthday and I got to spend it with some great people!

And that brings us to the start of the next blog - a weekend in Kigali, Rwanda. For some reason I lied to myself at the beginning of this entry thinking it would be a short one, but this is what happens when I blog about something that excites me in the middle of the night. Sorry!

(scroll down for more pictures)

Additional photos below
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Facetiming with Monty!Facetiming with Monty!
Facetiming with Monty!

In all the times I've travelled, not once have I Facetimed or Skyped with anyone back home... until I needed to discuss the pads with my mom. So of course, I Facetimed Monty too. He didn't quite understand what was happening. Damn he's a handsome boy!
We carried stickers around to give to children We carried stickers around to give to children
We carried stickers around to give to children

Some love them, others don't understand them

Tot: 0.052s; Tpl: 0.023s; cc: 13; qc: 27; dbt: 0.0087s; 1; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.4mb