The high and persistent school dropout rates in Uganda continue to worry education experts wondering how they will meet the set targets of keeping children enrolled in school right from the start to the finishing line.
Although 90 percent of children attend primary school, that drops below 25 percent in secondary school due to facility shortages.
Now this disparity continues to contribute to the very high prevalence rates of poverty and low literacy levels amongst Ugandans as those without a secondary education have lower chances of pursuing careers.
The Education commissioner in charge of special need at the ministry of education Jackson Obera says despite all the efforts and interventions like the Universal education put in place by government might go to waste if such unique challenges are not addressed. He however says that his ministry is now formulating an all-inclusive new policy that will address such unique challenges.
The High and persistent school dropout rates which translate in to wastage are increasingly becoming a primary concern to the provision of quality education especially in a developing country like Uganda.
Buikwe District is no exception to the high school dropout rates, Buikwe comprises of mostly the fishing community in Njeru, the sugarcane out growers’ in Lugazi and the slum areas or urban dwellers.
While the drop-out rate for both boys and girls may be worrisome, it is very inexcusable when it comes to the girls who face such unique challenges especially when they hit the stage of puberty.
Many girls face reproductive challenges and fail to manage their menstrual hygiene mostly due to lack of guidance and assurance from their elders who include their teachers, parents and guardians while some develop a phobia for their bodies which eventually increases their risk dropping out of school.
Girls face a range of challenges that may compromise their chances of completing school for their sexual and reproductive health which include amongst others their feelings of shame about their bodies, in particular about menstruation, or their lack of sanitary products to help them manage menstruation.
A civil society organization WoMena Uganda in partnership with Buikwe District Local Government and the Icelandic Embassy are implementing Menstrual Health Component for Primary Schools Project in 21 primary schools in Buikwe fishing Communities.
The project targets 1200 school girls in Primary six and seven and those with 12 years and above in lower classes as the primary beneficiaries.
In this girls receive a comprehensive Menstrual Hygiene Management training with topics tailored for both boys and girls, the girls will also receive an MHM kit consisting of a pair of knickers, a menstrual cup, a pack of AFRIpads, and a metallic container for boiling the cup.
Studies in Uganda have found that many girls struggle to attend and do well in school due to inadequate resources to manage their periods as many women still face a huge difficulty due to lack of access to feminine hygiene products and few adequate sanitary facilities.
In the month of September, in total 628 parents were reached and these included 476 women and 152 men, 537 consented for their daughters to participate for further empowerment on how to manage their bodies and menstrual hygiene.
However for children like Nalumansi Zainab a Primary Seven Pupil at at St. Appollo Kivebulaaya C/U primary school in Buikwe district, one of the main reasons they drop out of school is the lack of sanitary materials and facilities when they start menstruating.
Nalumansi says she cannot attend school while on her period for fear of staining her dress and being ridiculed by boys, sometimes even her female counterparts. She adds that many girls especially those in upper primary face the same predicament.
Teacher Christine Namyaalo at the same school also notes that they face a challenge of supporting these girls because they too lack the financial muscle and some instances also fail to show up for their lessons due to lack of menstruation supplies.
“Many of the girls stay away for at least four days a month because of the stigma,” says Namyaalo.
Namyalo adds, “Sadly this also affects teachers, because menstrual hygiene management forces girls out of education and into early marriages and teenage pregnancies as they often fail to afford the pads, or the schools do not have adequate facilities for girls on their periods, and many girls face teasing or bullying when they start menstruating.”
The good news however is that many development partners are helping to build changing rooms for girls in some schools, training female teachers on guidance and counselling skills and providing sanitary towels.
Namyaalo beams with happiness talking about the empowerment she has received through these trainings that she has been able to transfer to her students who happily attend classes while on their periods. She says before WoMena intervention, girls would miss class on an average of 7 out of 10 but this has reduced to at least 3 out of 10 which they hope to reduce to zero in the next 3 years.
Nighty Acan from Awer primary school in Gulu district from Nothern Uganda, one of the most affected regions says they have now resorted to teaching these school girls how to make their own re-usable pads.
Nighty explains that they use soft cotton cloth that easily absorbs fluids which is covered in polythene to protect it from leakage. The sanitary towels are easy to use because they can be washed and used over and over. They can last several months, saving parents their meagre income.
Local shops stock sanitary pads that cost on average 5,000 Ugandan shillings (about US$2.50) a packet – too expensive for most of the predominantly peasant families in northern Uganda.
On average, a woman will use up to 200 disposable pads in a year, significantly straining the waste management systems which have to absorb millions of pads per year.
One of the development partners UNHCR Global also recognizes reusable pads as a core relief item, which shows the widespread acceptance and implementation of reusable solutions.
UNHCR Uganda and UNHCR Mbarara partnered with AFRIpads Uganda Ltd. to implement a pilot with the aim of “testing the appropriateness and acceptability of reusable sanitary pads in the southwestern refugee context, specifically among schoolgirls”.
As the only local manufacturers of UNBS-certified reusable pads on the market, AFRIpads has worked in collaboration with over 200 NGO’s in Uganda, and supplied millions of menstrual kits to humanitarian organizations across East Africa, including UN agencies.
Over the past 4 years, UNHCR has implemented programs distributing AFRIpads’ reusable sanitary pads to over 100,000 refugee women and girls with support of the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), this translating in to keeping girls in such vulnerable and constrained settings in school.
It is now evident that government and other development partners are treating this as priority in a bid to ensure that girls are kept in school however girls still face a financial constraint in finding the material and machines to make these products.
Fasha Nabawanuka, a Primary seven student at Kalagala UMEA primary school in Buikwe district says she was overly joyed by the training she received from the trainers on how to make her own sanitary products but now faces a financial constraint sourcing for the material.
“I wish I could get a constant supply of the material and a good machine that would last for long for me to be producing for even other girls who did not get the opportunity to be trained like I did”. She says.
She further points out the challenge of the high risk of acquiring Uterine Infections in cases of improper sanitation which is highly common amongst teenage girls.
In 2018 Education Minister Janet Museveni while appearing before Parliament’s Education Committee, told Members of Parliament that government did not have money to provide sanitary pads for school-going girls as had been promised by President Museveni during his campaigns in 2016.
“It would be very productive if the boys are sensitized on the matter so that they can understand that menstruation is a normal and natural happening for the girls. This would bring them to stop scorning menstruating girls,” she said.
The minister also committed to giving support to small and medium enterprises that would engage in the production of re-usable sanitary products for school going children.