Sex & Ed: The keys to unlocking a new future for girls

How asking for underwear and menstrual pads in northern Uganda breaks new ground 

Students at the Pader Girls Academy in northern Uganda launched a letter-writing campaign to ask for menstrual pads and are also sewing their own reusable pads.

Today we celebrate the International Day of the Girl Child, a date set aside each October to bring attention to the needs and rights of girls around the world and to encourage activities that will help girls to realize their power and achieve their potential. Here is why the Day of the Girl matters and why the weight of the #dayofthegirl movement can’t be distilled to a tweet.

In May, I packed my bags for east Africa to fulfill a summer internship requirement for my Masters of Public Health degree. Awarded a University of California Human Rights Fellowship from the Human Rights Center at Berkeley Law, I would spend three months at Pader Girls Academy (PGA), a boarding school in rural northern Uganda. I aimed to create the school’s first-ever sexual and reproductive health curriculum.

I quickly learned to back up a few steps.

Uganda tells us a lot about the experience of the “girl child.” Seventy percent of Ugandans are 25 years old or younger and 25 percent of Ugandan girls aged 15–19 are pregnant or already have a child. Discrimination against women in Uganda is a result of rules and practices that explicitly exclude women, such as the traditional policy that requires schoolgirls to terminate their education for two years if they become pregnant. Though policy has been overturned, many institutions continue to adhere to the original rule. To further highlight the lack of agency that Ugandan girls experience, the most recent Demographic Health Survey reported that 77 percent of girls ages 15-19 are not allowed to participate in household decision-making.

Girls across the developing world share these complex barriers to health, education, and empowerment. However, the girls of northern Uganda face an additional challenge.

The country continues to suffer the aftermath of a 25-year rebel war, which was characterized by infamously brutal “recruitment” tactics. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)—the rebel group at the heart of the violence—abducted an estimated 60,000–80,000 people throughout the course of the conflict, manipulating young boys to fight and forcing young girls to act as “brides” to high commanders.

As the conflict drew to a close, many abductees escaped or were released. But coming home was not always celebratory or even possible.

Adolescent girls who came out of the LRA often brought with them their children who were born in captivity and fathered by rebel commanders. These young women faced enormous barriers to acceptance from their families and communities and challenges reintegrating in society. Pader Girls Academy (PGA) was founded for them.

PGA is the only school in the region that allows young mothers to keep their babies with them as they continue their studies. The school even provides free childcare. PGA has opened its arms to child mothers and other vulnerable young women beyond the original former-abductee population.

During my time in Pader, I surveyed these students, interviewed their teachers and conducted focus groups to better understand their needs and desires for sexual and reproductive health. My students did want information, but they also wanted something much more basic: underwear, soap, and menstrual pads.

I realized that if I didn’t own underwear, I probably wouldn’t be thinking about my long-term family planning strategy either.

In the United States, the average woman spends $150 each year on menstrual hygiene products. Many families in rural Uganda earn less than $150 in an entire year.

According to some studies, 66 percent of girls know nothing about menstruation until they start their menses. Imagine how traumatic this could be. Most girls at PGA use rags or old t-shirts to stuff in their underwear during their period. Most can’t afford disposable pads and many cannot even afford underwear. If blood soaks through their clothing, they may skip classes to avoid the embarrassment. According to a UNICEF study conducted in Uganda, 61 percent of girls reported missing school due to their monthly period.

Some of my students told me that girls’ inability to afford pads was a key reason that so many became pregnant. What? The causal pathway was not immediately clear to me.

The students explained that when a girl cannot afford pads (or clothing, transportation, school fees, etc.), an older man may offer to pay for those things and later expect sex. This exploitation coupled with the extreme lack of family-planning knowledge contributes to Uganda’s high school drop-out and teen pregnancy rates.

After listening to these needs and concerns, I organized an advocacy workshop. The head girl of the school, Grace, selected a few girls from each grade who were considered the “best writers.” I worked with them to identify and articulate their needs and to communicate those needs to key decision-makers.

The girls wrote letters to companies such as Hanes and Kotex on behalf of the school. They wrote about their dreams and their challenges, describing how donations of basic hygiene resources would have a positive impact on the trajectory of their studies.

The response was overwhelming. The girls’ letters sparked a conversation between Lunapads, a Canadian company that sells reusable menstrual pads, and me and ultimately led their Ugandan partner company, Afripads, to donate “hygiene kits,” to every student at Pader Girls Academy. Each kit contains several pairs of underwear, a set of reusable pads, and a bar of soap.

The students were thrilled. At our end-of-term assembly, we recognized the girls who wrote the letters and applauded them for their initiative and their service to the school. It was a powerful moment.

Building on this momentum of self-sufficiency, the tailoring instructor of PGA and I identified a simple pattern and local materials to sew reusable pads ourselves. We taught the vocational students how to sew their own pads and encouraged them to make extras to sell in their home villages over the term break.

PGA is a community of girls who have been stripped of their power. Poverty happens to them, sex happens to them, pregnancy happens to them. To see these strong young women reclaiming their voices, taking initiative, and finding a sense of control over even one aspect of their lives is thrilling—especially when that one seemingly small thing—menstruation— can have such a ripple effect on other areas of their lives and on the rest of their lives.

On this International Day of the Girl Child, we must recognize that educating girls is a priority that goes hand-in-hand with ensuring that their basic needs are met—and working with them as they regain their voices to ask for what they need.

Maggie Crosby is a student in the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley and a 2014 Human Rights Fellow from the UC Berkeley School of Law.