Today, we celebrate girls’ right to equal opportunities and development. The theme for this year’s International Day of the Girl Child is Girls’ Progress = Goals’ Progress: What counts for girls is recognising that girls’ progress is good not only for girls, but for families and society at large. Everywhere around the world, girls are born with disadvantages and face discrimination every day. We need to collect and analyse data involving the needs of girls and young women in order to adequately measure and understand the opportunities and challenges girls face and apply this knowledge to identify solutions to empower them to live healthier and better lives with equal opportunities.
One of the areas where there is evidence that girls are held back is in the area of menstrual health. Girls all over the world report how stigma and inadequate possibilities to manage menstruation contribute to feelings of distress and inability to pursue daily activities, such as going to school or biking. There is increasing attention to the issue, and programmes show that girls can find new freedom when accessing adequate reproductive health solutions.
Globally, girls often lack the ability to manage their menstruation with dignity due to lack of adequate and private facilities, safe, acceptable and accessible menstrual health products and knowledge, which can be further exacerbated during conflict and displacement. Human rights organisations have for many years documented how lack of support for managing menstruation and poor facilities have a negative impact on women and girls’ human rights. This negative impact is evident in the way schools, workplaces and refugee camps are operated.
In Uganda approximately 86% of South Sudanese refugee arrivals are women and children (UNHCR, 2017). With implementation support from WoMena Uganda, the Dutch relief and recovery organisation ZOA implemented a Menstrual Health Management (MHM) pilot intervention in Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement, Arua district in north-western Uganda to assess the acceptability of introducing menstrual cups and reusable pads. 108 girls and women participated in the pilot. We found that girls and women lacked the essentials to manage their menstruation safely and with dignity. They lacked access to menstrual management products, soap, underwear, and pain relief.
Providing reusable pads and menstrual cups allowed girls and women to adapt to the contextual challenges within the refugee settlement for a more comfortable period. Before the reusable pads and cups were distributed, teachers reported girls missing schools and even dropping out of school due to lack of menstrual products. At the start of the project, 38% of the girls stated that they had missed school due to menstruation in the last year and 75% of participants stated that they did not have enough information about menstruation. Even 44% of respondents did not know what menstruation is, 25% described menstruation as caused by God, and several interviewees and respondents (women, boys and men) described menstruation as a disease.
An essential part of the pilot project was also to encourage a supportive environment for girls and women by creating openness in discussing menstruation through community sensitisation. At the start of the project, schoolgirls, women, and men reported that it is not normal to talk about menstruation in the community, and 50% of the girls stated that they do not discuss menstruation freely with any family member. By the end of the project, most respondents stated that they had talked to a female household member after receiving training in MHM, and teachers felt that they had a better relationship with their pupils as there was more openness. The project showed that alternative menstrual products are acceptable amongst schoolgirls in a Ugandan refugee context. The girls reported positive changes in terms of their mobility and comfort during their periods as they were comfortable and free to carry out daily activities. They found both the reusable pads and the menstrual cup to be cost-saving and teachers confirmed that girls had better school attendance. The project gave the participants a better understanding of their bodies and how to manage menstruation.
“So when I am menstruating, you feel a little bit bored, before when we were not given the products, I will say aah! I was even scared to stay with friends sometimes when you don’t have pads, you will not even feel like going to school – if you go to school, blood will come out and everyone will know that I’m menstruating today. But after the products, no problem at all, you will feel free.” Schoolgirl, School 1, Endline interview
Every day girls around the world fight to get the same rights as boys. Menstruation can be a restricting event in girls’ lives without the proper means and knowledge to manage it, but by providing acceptable solutions to menstruation and tackling the taboos and stigma surrounding menstruation, we can help girls stay in school, perform better and get one step closer to a life with equal opportunities.
Happy International Day of the Girl Child!
Footnote: UNHCR (2017): Weekly-SSD-Info-Graph-10-07-17, https://ugandarefugees.org/category/policy-and-management/situation-reports/?r=48
Photos are from WoMena’s Menstrual Cup Intervention Project in Gulu Uganda (2014) and from the Menstrual Health Management (MHM) pilot intervention in Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement (2017). Photos are take by Tom Saater and Muyingo Siraj.
Anna works as Project and M&E officer for WoMena Uganda, where she has lived and worked for the last year. She holds an MSc in Geography and Geoinformatics, and has experience in project management, data collection, mapping, monitoring and evaluation in the area of women’s empowerment and sustainability in complex developing settings, including post-conflict and disaster contexts.
Louise holds an MSc in Business Administration and Organizational Communication and works as a project manager for the VELUX Endowed Chair in Corporate Sustainability and UN PRME at Copenhagen Business School. She is a volunteer in WoMena’s Danish based communication’s team coordinating communication and fundraising.