“Because we are, the nation is” is a famous motto for a teacher in Uganda. Somewhere in Alira Primary School in Akura Sub–county, Alebtong District, a certain teacher scratches his head on how to help Museveni fulfill his campaign promise of free sanitary pads.

It is at this school on Thursday November 12 th 2015, that the promise was made.

“I want all our daughters to attend school and remain there until they complete their studies. One of the reasons that force our daughters out of school is that when their periods start, they do not have sanitary pads. When they are in class, they soil their dresses. So they run away from school,” Museveni said.

Based on this promise, several women in the area and several other Ugandans, in particular, went to polling stations to cast their votes in favor of the visionary old man with a hat. This was on assumption that government within the next financial year 2016/17 would have pads budgeted for and supplied to schools. They waited in vain. In the budget process of 2017/18 financial year, the Education minister Janet Museveni whom most people in government fondly refer to as maama literally to mean mother, clearly stated that government did not have money to buy sanitary pads. This triggered off criticism from opposition politicians and some civil society organizations. One of the most active critics of government Dr. Stella Nyanzi, a researcher was sent to jail for her symbolic allusion of the inefficiencies in government and its failure to honor its pledge.

Museveni on arrival at a rally in Zombo-district

However, the government says that although the sanitary towels were not budget for, they remain on their priority list. An indication that those kids that drop out of school due to periods should wait a little longer “maybe” up to the next financial year since the government still wants to develop its infrastructure. Whether Ugandans are rushing to demand the government to deliver on the pads or not, is another issue. Maybe it’s not yet another campaign time. Probably, Ugandans should wait until a few years to the next elections of 2021.

During a session on Friday, May 19 last week, the Ministry of Education and Sports officials led by the State Minister for Higher Education, John Chrysostom Muyingo appeared at the Uganda Media Centre to fast track their achievements in the one year since the NRM government has been in power. I had an opportunity to ask a question to the officials on how far the government has gone in regard to providing sanitary pads to pupils for reducing the number of dropouts. Minister Muyingo buoyantly responded that the ministry had trained a total of 240 teachers on gender responsive teaching methodologies and mentored them on how to handle learners and sexual maturation in districts of Abim and Nakapiripit; and, engaged 81 district officials in Karamoja region including 59 males and 22 females, which is a good gesture.

He further noted that a total of over 900 Senior Women and Men teachers (530 Senior Women Teachers and 375 Senior Men Teachers from 60 schools had been trained including 75 district officers from 16 districts as well as 900 Head teachers on Gender Responsive Pedagogy, Menstrual Hygiene Management and Building Positive and Supportive Learning Environment; this would also be a good gesture. Hearing all these, I started feeling that maybe, the government was steadfast towards the provision of sanitary pads.

The most captivating revelation came from the assistant commissioner for primary education, Mr. Tonny Mukasa-Lusambu, who said that the ministry had instructed all government schools to use part of the money for the capitation grant to buy some sanitary pads for an emergency at schools. I thought to myself how realistic this could be.

With his statement, I recounted the conversation I had with my former teacher at Kyamuteera Primary School, a UPE school in Rushenyi district that began in 1952 as a church school but later became government aided in 1978. In 1997, the school was turned into a Universal Primary Education school. Despite the program’s successes at inception, it has been struggling to buy chalk over time with a claim that the capitation grant is small and often times comes late even when schools have closed. Pupils are even asked to carry food for teachers every morning to school.

Apart from packing food for their children (entaanda), parents have a burden of always looking for raw food either a cluster of bananas, sweet potatoes, beans, cassava depending on what the families have in addition to a piece of firewood. Every morning, pupils must present these food items. Usually, at this school, the pupil that brings more food receives some favors from teachers.

One of the reasons for the food collections that Mr. Wamala, the head teacher of the school speaks of is that the school struggles to feed teachers at school. The location is so remote such that there is no food joint anywhere nearby.

“We ask pupils to bring raw food and when it is here, our cook prepares it for teachers for lunch.

Sometimes when the cook has not reported due to delay in payment of her wage, the teacher on duty selects some of the old girls to cook,” he reveals.

Adding that sometimes due to low supply of food, teachers end up competing with pupils on the fruits such as guavas and mangoes in the school compound for lunch in order for them to be able to conduct lessons in the afternoon. As a result, the school has severely declined in the performance of pupils. The statistics at the school indicate that since 2001, it has never got the first grade. The number of pupils has dropped from over 1000 in the late 90s to now about 150 pupils.

The school’s major challenge is late remittance of capitation grant by the government. This is identical with several other primary schools in the district. While pupils do not pay directly fees at the school, the fee is indirectly disguised under food supplies to teachers at the school. At the end of the day, pupils end up losing resources in terms of value for money, time and quality education at the expense of government negligence of poor supervision.

In a survey done by Makerere University Students in 2013 on the status of Universal Primary Schools in Ntungamo district, it was found out that several pupils dropped out due to early marriages and menstrual related issues, and the stigmatization that comes with it. This was commonly so among schools in Ngoma sub-county in Rushenyi district. But how feasible is a scenario where a school operates without funds for the entire term?

First forward, Capitation Grants are computed based on school enrollment with each pupil getting shs 7,560 a year in addition to a block grant of sh100,000 per term. According to the Capitation Grants expenditure guidelines, 50% of the grant is supposed to be used on instructional materials; 30% on co-curricular activities (sports, clubs etc.); 15% on school management (school maintenance, payment for utilities such as water and electricity); and 5% on school administration.

When the Government abolished fees for primary education in 1997, it committed itself to paying shs7,000 per pupil each year. Technocrats had proposed shs10,000 for each pupil, but Government did not buy the idea due to inadequate funds. Now 20 years later Government has not yet fulfilled its commitment of shs7,560 per pupil. The closest they came to this figure was only once in 2012/2013 financial year when it paid shs7,046 per child. More striking is that indeed the ministry plans for sh7,000 and not the agreed sh7, 560.

This does not mean government increased capitation grant to the schools that year, but largely due to the fact that the number of pupils in a school in 2012/13 financial year was lower than in the previous and other years that followed due to school dropout. Statistics from the education ministry indicate that Government, since the inception of the program, has been paying capitation fees for each pupil in ranging between shs4, 500 and 6,500 per year.

The funds are released on a quarterly basis in any given financial year. But yet at the end of the financial year, each pupil is supposed to be allocated sh7,560. During the years, the Government sent shs4,500 to schools for each pupil; it meant that it paid shs1,500 for each pupil to keep at school per term.

But, this amount of money can hardly repair just one desk in a school. But part of the problem emanated from low Government funding for free primary education, allotted to the education ministry. Statistics show that government has been allocating between sh30b to sh45b as capitation grant for the UPE program each financial year. More statistics show that the education ministry didn’t receive the money it needed for UPE between the years 2002 to 2012.

For example, according to the education budget of 2006/2007, over sh46b was required for UPE, but only shs32bn was approved; and only shs30bn was released. The cumulative budget shortfall for UPE between 2002 and 2012 stands at over sh111b. This means the education ministry has to use the available little money to pay for all children which creates variability in the unit cost for each pupil because enrollment figures change every year.

The government, therefore, should leave these hide and seek games and provide pads and or sustainable mechanisms for the safety of the girl-child so they can concentrate on their academics while in school. Ugandans must not be subjected to bones and leftovers. Our children need better education. Beyond the classroom, beyond pads and, beyond just promises, can we drop the jokes?

How can a school struggle to buy chalk be told to buy pads for pupils?  Is the capitation grant enough to buy pads? Maybe a teacher from Alira Primary School can tell based on their experience.