Ugandan girls are missing school because they can't afford hygiene products. Activists are helping out, but a crowdfunding campaign to buy millions of sanitary pads has fallen foul of the country's authoritarian regime.
Dozens of children, clad in their white and blue uniforms, are sitting at their desks in their classrooms. The bell ring rings. In the CARE primary school in the Ugandan capital Kampala, lessons are now over. But instead of going straight home, around a dozen girls stay behind in one of the classrooms. Tables are moved and sewing machines brought out. The girls fetch scissors, bits of fabric and patterns.
Sadat Nduhira is running this unusual sewing class. The 27-year-old artist is familiar with the problem troubling many of the girls. He himself grew up in a deprived neighborhood and his sisters also stayed away from school when they had their periods. As an artist, he experiments readily with lots of different fabrics and materials and last year it occurred to him that he could teach the girls how to make sanitary pads themselves out of old towels and cotton.
Distribute to other schools
Every tenth Ugandan schoolgirl stays away from class because of menstrual bleeding. Children from poor families can't afford sanitary pads or tampons. Catherine Nantume comes from one such family. But now she operates the pedal-driven sewing machine with the confidence of an expert while the other girls watch.
"I always used to miss school. That made me very sad, because I sat at home and did nothing. This project makes me very happy," she said while bringing a new pad into position on the sewing machine. "We produce a lot of pads, we distribute them free of charge to other schools in rural areas and sometimes we teach the girls there how they can make them themselves. Perhaps they will then also distribute pads to other girls elsewhere," she said,
Sadat Nduhira also explains to the girls how they can recycle their pads. After use, they have to be soaked in water. Then they must be properly washed in the morning and left out to dry in the sun. "Then you have to iron them with a very hot iron so the last remaining bacteria are killed off. Put them away in a clean place so they remain hygienic," he said.
Lack of government funds
Menstruation and sanitary pads are normally taboo in conservative Uganda but recently they became the subject of heated public debate. Even Uganda's political elite is getting involved. During the 2016 election campaign, President Yoweri Museveni promised schools that they would received sanitary pads free of charge. Many mothers then voted for Museveni, who appointed his wife, Janet, minister for education. But "Mama Janet," as she is fondly referred to, was forced to acknowledge that her husband's election promise was not that easy to implement."The Ugandan state lacks the necessary funds to buy sanitary pads," Janet Museveni told parliament in February 2017.
Enter Uganda's leading feminist Stella Nyanzi. She started a crowdfunding campaign on social media and wants to collect enough money to buy ten million reusable sanitary pads. So far she has collected 13 million Uganda shillings (3,270 Euros, $3,500). "Biology is politics - it's all about power," she complained. She lists the school leaving examinations as an example. The statistics show that girls from poor rural families perform worse than the rest. In the cities, where the girls' families are better off, they do just as well as the boys.
Broken promises and repression
Nyanzi finds it annoying that women parliamentarians and the minister for education are failing to tackle the inequality suffered by poor girls in rural areas. "The government makes promises, but doesn't keep them," she said.
On #pad4GirlsUg, Nyanzi has been criticizing women in positions of power in Uganda. There have already been repercussions. She was summoned by the police because she had allegedly insulted the president on Facebook. At the airport, she was prevented from flying to The Netherlands and was put on the no-fly list. She believes she could be arrested at any moment. Her campaign for feminine hygiene products has turned political and shows how draconian the curbs on free speech in Uganda have become.
By Simone Schlindwein