There is an old saying, usually attributed to Confucius, an ancient Chinese philosopher that goes “give a man fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

In that simple statement, lays an important life lesson and that is; give someone an answer, and he or she will only have a temporary solution. Teach that person the principles that led you to that answer, and that person will be able to create own solutions in the future.

That saying, is the best analogy I can use to describe the missing link in the access to sanitary pads war (or rather campaigns). On one hand, is the civil society and activists that have embarked on  fundraising drives to donate sanitary towels in schools and on the other hand, is the government which at first, claimed there are no funds for sanitary towels in this ending financial year and it is the same government which is now directing schools to use a portion of its funds to buy emergency sanitary towels.

Why are we talking about sanitary towels anyway?

Every woman or a girl has a fundamental human right to have the ability to manage basic biological functions like menstruation yet in Uganda, many women and girls cannot access sanitary towels due to affordability.

For girls, the failure to afford sanitary towels means missing up to eight (8) days of school- every month or dropping out due to lack of sanitary towels according to a 2014 Study of Menstrual Management in Uganda. In rural Uganda, drop out rates for girls in school are as high as 40%, in great part due to the lack of access to affordable and effective sanitary products as well as the unfavorable school environment which does not accommodate menstrual hygiene.

With them dropping out of school, the natural end result is them getting married off as teenagers which is a leading cause of teenage pregnancies in Uganda today. The 2016 Uganda Demographic Health Survey states that 25% of school going girls between the ages of 12-19 years have already begun childbearing or are pregnant.

In simple terms, this means that for many young girls in rural Uganda- mostly, life and education stops when they get their first period. We therefore need to understand that issues responsible for girls dropping out of school, start way before that you think, most being experiencing their first menstrual cycle.

The problem with the current access to sanitary towels advocacy/campaigns

Sustainability is the problem. Much as the campaigns are all for a good cause, these are just temporary solutions which won’t address the ever growing population (of girls) and their needs in the country- in the long run.

About 16 million girls in Uganda are below the age of 18 according to the 2014 National Housing and Population Report. Almost half of those are in school. Donating sanitary towels to all girls in schools therefore across the country is unrealistic.

Even if you decide to donate, it is not a one off. There has to be follow up action to distribute more reusable sanitary towels when time to change the ones that had been donated earlier on comes.

For the government that is directing schools to use a portion of their funds to buy emergency sanitary towels has a lot of shortcomings. Many Universal Primary Education and Universal Secondary Schools are running on very low budgets due to late or no allocation of said funds attributed to corruption and schools will most likely not take the directive serious.

Therefore, on both ends there are two things; One is that by just donating sanitary towels, we are giving young girls “fish” and not teaching them “how to fish” and secondly, we are just addressing symptoms and not giving lasting solutions to the problem.

The long term solution(s)

The long term solution is to teach them age appropriate sexuality education coupled with life skills right from primary one to enable them to easily respond to body and sexuality needs that both boys and girls experience while growing up early enough so that they are not caught unawares.

The skills in this education for girls which has to be passed on by trained personnel/teachers in schools, has to focus on hands-on management of menstrual hygiene beyond the known modes of sanitary towels.

In India, Saathi Pads is teaching women and girls menstrual hygiene management through learning how to use locally-sourced banana fiber to create biodegradable sanitary napkins, which degrade faster if buried and don’t have to be burned.

Closer to Uganda are the Mwezi Pads in Kenya that are made on sewing machines by Kenyan women’s collectives using fabrics that are locally available and affordable.  They have a homemade appearance, but contain a plastic lining to protect against leakage. The pads consist of a circular base, with a Velcro attachment that fastens to the underwear.

In a 2013 study by University of Oxford named Sanitary Pads Accessibility and Sustainability Study, it was found that Mwezi Pads were acceptable in the primary environment and performed better than customary means. This is important because the Mwezi Pads can be made by anyone with a sewing machine, so NGOs and government workers could give instructions—with clear direction about the selection of materials and communities could make their own pads. All providers of cloth pads must be mindful that they should also provide soap.

Back to Uganda, instead of making students study Canadian Prairies, St. Lawrence Seaway, wood work, Metal Work etc, why can’t they use that time for productive life skill lessons for example being engaged in practical lessons on how to address issues to deal with menstrual hygiene- both boys and girls?

Local NGOs already working in menstrual hygiene management for example AFRIpads and Maka Pads, can be engaged and work with government through the line ministries (Ministry of Health, Office of the Prime Minister and Ministry of Education and Sports) to conduct regional trainings for key teachers in schools on sustainable menstrual hygiene management so that this module is introduced in schools as life skills education.

If this can be introduced in the health and education budgets, it can save us from the never ending story of “there are no funds”. Kenya was the first country in the world to allocate menstrual hygiene management funds in its budget (about $3 million US Dollars per year since 2011) and it is greatly improving health and education of girls. Uganda can pick leaf.