Kitengeesa; a small village in Uganda, has always been bedeviled by a high dropout rate when it comes to girl child education. A lot of young females are known to call it quits with school way before they even had a shot at making the most of it. And there’s something of an awkward reason behind the trend – menstrual cycles.
It’s quite common for young girls in the community to stay out of school whenever that time of the month comes around. Because they can’t afford proper sanitary towels, a lot of them resort to using threadbare rags or tufts of mattress stuffing to deal with the routine.
And as those improvised methods often fail, the bulk of them opt to stay out of school altogether for the four or five days of their monthly period to avoid embarrassment or stigma.
Now, think of it this way – if a girl child misses four to five days of school on average every month because of her period – barring other school misses due to unforeseen circumstances – she’s very likely to struggle with the pace of school work. When keeping up proves more work than it should be, most of them take the easy way out by quitting school altogether and getting drawn into early marriages.
And Kitengeesa, like many rural communities in Uganda, has seen more than its fair share of the situation – scores of young females quitting school and starting families of their own in early adolescence. As they are neither sufficiently enlightened nor empowered, they merely become bearers of offspring – birthing children even when they haven’t a clue how to raise them or the means to provide for them.
And because many of these girls get married to much older men who themselves are poor and not enlightened, they become subjects of various forms of domestic abuse.
Worse still, because a lot of them are exposed to reproductive life way too early, they become susceptible to a number of life-threatening diseases. All these create one big vicious circle of poverty and pain.
It’s a troubling situation, and the statistics tell the story. According to UNESCO, one in ten girls across Sub-Saharan Africa miss school when on their period. This has a massive impact on their education as some girls miss dozens of days a year. Cost is the biggest reason as school girls are often unable to afford sanitary pads.
But it does seem like all that is to soon become a thing of the past as a company in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, appears to be making giant strides towards fixing the anomaly. The company is called AFRIpads, and it produces cheap, reusable sanitary pads in a small factory which aptly employs over 100 women.
Since kicking off operations in 2009, AFRIpads claims to have produced over 2.5 million pads and teamed up with several NGOs to distribute them across Uganda. The impact has been evident and far-reaching, with thousands of school girls now being kept in school as they no longer have to miss school whenever it’s that time of the month.
Back in 2009, Sophia Klumpp and her husband-to-be at the time, Paul Grinvalds, were working for a nonprofit group in a rural village in Uganda. It didn’t take long before Klumpp noticed the challenge many young girls faced managing their monthly periods, and she may have been greatly disturbed by the fact that most of them had to sit out school for several days for fear of accidents and the embarrassment that comes with it.
She connected the dots quickly. Girls who miss school regularly are unable to keep up with school work, and this makes them more likely to drop out, marry early, and begin to have children. Without the skills or the time to cater for themselves, they are left at the mercy of their spouses – they become liabilities to society.
But as Klumpp noted in contrast, “Every extra year a girl stays in school, she has a higher earning potential, and for every year of gainful employment, [is] more likely to engage in family planning.”
Those thoughts set the ball rolling, and the couple soon got started on a pilot project for AFRIpads. The idea was to make available low-cost sanitary pads that will give girls and women greater freedom to go about their lives, as well as create employment opportunities for women in a bid to empower them.
Initially, there were just five women aged between 18 and 20 doing the work – each sewed three washable and reusable cloth pads daily. But word soon spread, and people came calling. From schoolgirls to young women and even the officials of the school – everyone sought to get in on the act. And the company has only grown since then. According to Klumpp, AFRIpads produces well over 30,000 pads a month, and the volume is still rising.
The number of employees has witnessed growth too with up to 150 employees on the roster, of which 135 are women who are all part of the formal economy. “They have bank accounts at Barclay’s, have savings accounts, are saving for the government pension plan” and are paying taxes, says Klumpp.
The growth in the volume has also encouraged an increase in the number of locations at which employees manufacture the pads. Work has even reached advanced stages concerning the construction of a 1,000-square-foot building which will consolidate production in a single space.
Through donations and partnerships with organisations, AFRIpads are now sold and distributed in other parts of Africa. The pads are packaged and sold in kits that include holders and a carrying bag, as well as the pads themselves.
Besides keeping girls in school and empowering women, the project could help strengthen conversations that border on advancement/promotion of girl child education, delaying marriage until after adolescence, child-bearing, and family planning.
Featured Image Courtesy: segalfamilyfoundation.org