In Uganda, at least 30% of girls stay away from school due to a lack of sanitary pads. This implies that Uganda makes a significant contribution to the one in 10 girls in Sub-Saharan Africa who miss school due to menstruation. According to a study of menstrual management in Uganda, girls in rural areas miss up to eight days of study each academic term due to the lack of washrooms and sanitary pads, as well as bullying by peers. With 80% of the country’s population living in rural areas, the girls who remain at school during menstruation compromise their menstrual hygiene by using mostly rags and toilet paper.
Although most men still believe that issues of menstruation should be left to women and girls, Sebastian Ogola is determined to change this backward mindset. Recently, when This Is Africa tracked him down, we found the father of eight holding sanitary pads and a pair of knickers, showing 17-year-old Juliet Nyandoi how to use them.
Since February 2013, Ogola has been vending reusable So Sure Afripads. He started in his village of Akadoit in Mukuju sub-county, Tororo district, about 250km east of the capital, Kampala. Although he is doing this for a good cause, he says he has had to endure scorn from fellow men who ridicule him “for engaging in women issues”.
He realised men have a role in promoting menstrual hygiene in 2013, when he attended a workshop on the subject, facilitated by Plan International. During the three-day training, Ogola and others were equipped with a variety of entrepreneurial skills, but as a concerned father with three daughters, he became hooked on promoting menstrual hygiene.
“Before I got training, I was never bothered. Issues of menstruation were always left to the women,” he says. “But we were told to involve ourselves and capture the time when our wives and daughters have their monthly periods.”
With UGX250 000 (about USD70) as initial capital, Ogola bought 50 packets of Afripads and hawked them in his village.
“At the beginning, other men used to mock me. They would ask me, ‘What kind of a man are you to involve yourself in the issues of women?’” he says.
Undeterred, Ogola called for men’s attention and input in helping women and girls. He adds that he was always bothered by girls missing school because they were ridiculed by boys for soiling their dresses during menstruation.
“When I started visiting homes, most women told me they were using banana fibres, rags and sometimes toilet paper. But I kept engaging them and their men. Now men are the ones who come to me to buy pads for their wives and daughters,” he says. “This has made me a happy man.”
Ogola was always bothered by girls missing school because they were ridiculed by boys for soiling their dresses during menstruation.
During his presidential campaign last year, Yoweri Museveni said girls were dropping out of school because they did not have sanitary towels. He promised to provide sanitary pads to all school-going girls, but his pledge has not been fulfilled.
Museveni promised to provide sanitary pads to all school-going girls, but his pledge has not been fulfilled.
Before venturing into pads, Ogola depended solely on agriculture. Every season, he gets at least UGX1 million (approximately USD300) from groundnuts, maize and millet. However, selling pads has strengthened his financial muscle. Valuing his sanitary towel business at UGX600 000 (approximately USD200), Ogola has bought more land, sent his children to school and bought goats and cows.
School children emulating Ogola
Ogola was in his fifties when he realised that men can be part of menstruation matters, but boys aged 10 are already being trained to engage in menstrual issues at Achilet Primary School in the district.
When This Is Africa visited the school recently, 15 girls and nine boys were busy making reusable sanitary pads. Among them was 12-year-old Charles Othieno. Currently in P7, Othieno said he is enthusiastic about making the reusable sanitary pads to help girls.
“We used to laugh at them because we didn’t know what they were going through until our [senior woman] teacher [Audrey Wankya] taught us about how important it is for boys to engage in promoting menstrual hygiene,” Othieno said. “I also witnessed a man recently selling pads and realized it is okay for men to help girls.”
Wankya told us that the school health club includes a subsection of menstrual hygiene management where boys and girls are equipped with practical skills and knowledge on handling menstrual periods.
“Our children were facing many challenges during menstruation. You would find that most of them were absenting themselves,” she said. “And because this is a local school, you find that when children start experiencing menstruation, [parents] tell them they are ready for marriage. We lost very many girls because they were married off at a tender age.”
However, the challenges were diminished when Plan International came in five years ago to train and empower teachers to make reusable sanitary pads. Later, teachers trained pupils. Although the pupils are currently making the pads by hand, Plan International has donated sewing machines, which the pupils are learning to use.
Using Textron as the shield, polyester for pockets and cotton for the liner, Nankya said the 45 club members can make 90 pads in one sitting. When a pupil makes four pads, he/she gets one free, since they are doing the work voluntarily. This saves the members from buying the pads at UGX6 000 (approximately USD 2), although the cost doubles at market price.
With this practical approach, says Wankya, boys no longer mock their counterparts during menstruation.
As in Ogola’s village, where men are now openly buying sanitary pads for their wives and daughters, the boys of Achilet Primary School will grow to appreciate a man’s role in promoting menstrual hygiene.
At the moment, Ogola’s goal is to reach as many girls as possible. He says he has sensitised other men to take part because “menstruation is something that will not just go away”.