London — When Ugandan schoolgirl Auma got her first period she asked her mother for sanitary pads. Her mother suggested she find herself a husband to pay for them. Auma was just 12.
Auma’s story is not uncommon. Many girls in Uganda drop out of education when they begin menstruating because their schools lack proper washrooms or because they cannot afford costly sanitary products which are all imported.
Aid agency Plan International says hundreds of girls are forced into child marriages by parents too poor to buy hygiene products.
Many others are pressured into having sex by boys who offer to buy them sanitary items in return. Some end up pregnant and drop out of school.
Girl’s menstrual health, normally a taboo subject in conservative Uganda, made headlines this year when a high profile campaigner on the issue was arrested and detained for calling President Yoweri Museveni “a pair of buttocks” in a Facebook post.
University lecturer Stella Nyanzi unleashed a series of colourful attacks on the president and his wife after he failed to keep an election promise to provide sanitary pads to schoolgirls.
Nyanzi promptly launched a crowdfunding campaign #Pads4GirlsUg to collect donations for pads to be distributed at schools.
She was released on bail in May after a month behind bars, but is on trial for cyber harassment.
A government official said the education ministry was now in talks with a national charity and a pharmaceutical company with a view to producing free hygiene products for schoolgirls.
Nyanzi’s case has shone a spotlight on an issue that development experts say is a major barrier to girls’ education.
U.N. children’s agency UNICEF has estimated around 60 percent of girls in Uganda miss class because their schools lack separate toilets and washing facilities to help them manage their periods.
Many fall behind and end up quitting school. Once out of school they are more likely to be married off.
Patrick Adupa, Plan International’s child protection programme manager in Uganda, said the lack of menstrual hygiene support for schoolgirls was a strong factor in the country’s high drop-out rate.
More than 40 percent of girls fail to complete primary school and only a fifth start secondary school, Adupa said.
“Education is a very powerful tool in the prevention of child marriage,” he added.