By Malik Jjingo
The relentless grip of poverty in the Greater Masaka Region has perpetually cast a long shadow over the lives of its residents. Within this challenging situation, the most basic necessities remain out of reach for many, exacerbating the struggles faced by individuals and families alike.
However, young girls face a daunting fate. They are caught in a cycle of relentless challenges and struggling to attain even the most fundamental resources for their well-being.
One of the most glaring disparities lies in the availability and affordability of menstrual hygiene products, an issue that not only affects their physical health but also disrupts their education and self-esteem.
Imelda Nakasujja, a compassionate girls’ leader within Uganda Cares-Kalungu, an AIDS NGO, has been tirelessly working to shed light on the desperate measures some girls resort to so as to obtain sanitary pads.
Through her work, she has become a steadfast advocate for change, calling for the elimination of taxes on pads to address access challengers among girls and women.
According to Nakasujja, her experiences have given her a clear understanding of the hardships faced by the young girls regarding the access to pads. She further recounts the stories shared by her fellow peer leaders, who are the frontline warriors in the battle for menstrual hygiene justice.
In their quest to acquire sanitary pads, Nakasujja highlights that several girls have found themselves compelled to engage in transactional sex for money. “No girl should ever have to face such unimaginable circumstances just to manage a natural bodily process,” she explains.
The burden of taxes on sanitary pads compounds the problem further, making these essential items unaffordable for many families that are struggling to make ends meet.
However, Nakasujja and her peers firmly believe that eliminating these taxes would lead to a decrease in the prices of pads, making them more accessible to everyone, irrespective of their socioeconomic background.
Dr. Cecilia Natembo, the Regional Director- Uganda Cares In Masaka, emphasises the significant amount of school time lost by girls during menstruation. She implores the government to create a favorable environment where girls can attend school without fear of stigmatization.
According to Natembo, the high prices of sanitary pads, driven by taxes, make them too expensive for many girls in rural areas. This, in turn, hinders well-wishers who would like to support these girls by providing them with free pads.
“It is unfortunate that taxes on sanitary pads are being increased. Menstruation is not a choice; it is a natural process that all females go through. We are urging the government to remove taxes from sanitary pads because they are a necessity in a girl’s life,” she states.
Natembo reveals that girls miss more than two months (approximately 72 days) of school each year due to menstruation. For those who continue attending school during their periods, their academic performance is often adversely affected.
The activists further demand that menstrual health becomes a priority, urging leaders to support girls in staying in school and eradicating the stigma surrounding menstruation.
“It is unacceptable that adolescent girls miss so much school time during their menstruation. We need to dispel myths and end the stigma surrounding this natural process,” Natembo asserts.
Another concern raised by the activists is the lack of a comprehensive policy on health education. This absence hampers efforts to provide important sexual health education in schools. The activists urge parents to bridge this gap by offering health education information to their children.
They stand united in their plea to the government, urging them to waive taxes on sanitary towels. Their goal is simple: to ensure that girls and women can access these essential products without financial constraints, thereby saving them from embarrassment and allowing them to navigate their menstruation cycles with dignity.
Armed with this conviction, they have taken it upon themselves to raise awareness about the dire consequences of the existing system. Through community meetings, radio interviews, and social media campaigns, she has managed to rally support and ignite a conversation that has reached the ears of policymakers and influencers alike.
Asumputa Nalubega, the Prevention Program Coordinator- AHF-Uganda Cares, emphasizes the importance of improving menstrual hygiene management, access to running water and designated toilets for girls. These facilities would enable girls to change their pads comfortably during their menstruation.
“Schools should ensure the availability of free pads to effectively tackle the problem of girls experiencing unexpected menstruation. This would allow these children to remain in the classroom instead of having to go back home,” Nalubega emphasises.
Joseph Gonzaga Ssewungu, the legislator representing Kalungu West, has attributed the delayed implementation of free sanitary pad provision in schools to budget cuts in the Ministry of Education. He emphasizes the ongoing efforts of the education committee in parliament to secure a higher budget allocation for the Ministry. The ultimate goal is to ensure the availability of essential sanitary materials like pads in schools.
In 2015, during his campaign in the Lango sub-region, President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni pledged to offer free sanitary pads to pupils. Unfortunately, this promise remains unfulfilled up to the present time.
Girl, women empowerment
Sanitary pads play a crucial role in promoting menstrual hygiene and empowering women and girls around the country. In rural areas, access to adequate menstrual hygiene products remains a significant challenge, impacting the well-being, education, and overall quality of life of women and girls.
In rural communities, the lack of awareness, affordability, and availability of sanitary pads often leads to unhygienic practices during menstruation. Many women and girls resort to using unsanitary materials like old clothes, rags, or even leaves, which can cause discomfort, infections, and embarrassment.
These unhygienic practices also contribute to absenteeism from school or work, perpetuating gender inequalities.
NGOs, community-based organizations, and governmental initiatives are working together to raise awareness about menstrual hygiene, provide education on proper usage and disposal of sanitary pads, and increase access to affordable and sustainable options.
Several initiatives have focused on promoting the production of reusable sanitary pads, which are cost-effective, environmentally friendly, and suitable for the resource-limited rural settings. These pads can be made using locally available materials, such as cloth and bamboo fiber, and are washable and reusable, ensuring long-term usability.
Nevertheless, by addressing the menstrual hygiene needs of this population, we are not only ensuring their well-being but also promoting gender equality, education, and overall development in these communities.