While other children head home after school, some pupils in Uganda's northern Amuru and Gulu regions stay behind to make sanitary pads using cheap, locally available materials, to ensure girls do not miss school during menstruation.
"Here, we are teaching girls and boys how to make sanitary towels. We use soft cotton cloth that easily absorbs fluids. We [cover] it in polythene to protect it from [leakage]," Nighty Acan, Gulu's Awer Primary school patron, told IRIN.
"The [sanitary] towels are easy to use because they can be washed and used over and over. They can last several months, saving parents their meagre income."
Local shops stock sanitary pads that cost on average 5,000 Ugandan shillings (about US$2.50) a packet – too expensive for most of the predominantly peasant families in northern Uganda.
Lack of facilities
A lack of sanitary pads forced Vicky Akumu, 15, to use pieces of paper as padding when she started menstruating in 2010.
"It was a difficult time because I had no pads to conceal the flow. You know it [the menstrual blood] overflows when you have no protection, leaving you in a mess," said Akumu. "Other pupils would tease me, saying I [was] funny and I felt very bad."
Akumu dropped out of school but has since re-enrolled thanks to the free pad project.
Besides a lack of sanitary pads, few or no private toilet facilities for girls as well as a shortage of female teachers contribute to adolescent girls' absenteeism from school.
In Gulu, efforts are under way to improve girls' retention in primary schools by, for instance, supporting children to make sanitary towels and sensitizing the community on the need to educate girls, Grace Amito, Gulu Core Primary Teachers Demonstration School head teacher, told IRIN.
Photo: Charles Akena/IRIN
|Sanitary pads made using local materials|
About 32,000 girls enrolled in primary schools in Gulu in 2011, representing 38 percent of the eligible population, against a national rate of 70 percent, according to district education statistics.
"Despite this low figure, we are seeing an improvement following the intervention of development partners," the district education officer, Caesar Akena, said.
The development partners are helping to build changing rooms for girls in some schools, training female teachers on guidance and counselling skills and providing sanitary towels.
At Awich Primary School, where the project was launched in 2010, girls' enrolment has increased from 268 in 2010 to 310 in 2011.
Ben Okwamoi, an education officer in Amuru District, said boosting girls' education was necessary for Uganda to achieve its Universal Primary Education Millennium Development Goal.