No More Missing Class as Girls in Eastern Uganda Get Skills to Make Their Own Sanitary Pads

Mastercard Foundation Scholars and The Resolution Social Venture Challenge

Three students at Makerere University have come up with a solution to a problem that affects countless girls in Uganda’s Tororo District: reduce girls’ school dropout rates by training them with the skills required to make their own reusable sanitary pads.

Susan Hilda Lokolimoe, Marion Apio, and Suzan Mutoni met through the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program, a scholarship that supports the education of bright, young African leaders committed to improving the lives of others. In 2017, united by their desire to ensure the education of young women in Marion’s native and disadvantaged Tororo District, the young women came together to form Girls Alive Uganda.

“We all had this burning idea and the desire to make sanitary towels from different available materials like banana fibres and cotton cloths, even before we met,” said Suzan Mutoni.

“Girls Alive Uganda aims to train and empower girls with skills of making reusable sanitary towels for themselves. This will help to reduce school absenteeism and school dropout, which is always a major obstacle to education in the community. It will also empower girls to be self-dependent, since they will be trained to make their own reusable pads,” said Susan Lokolimoe.

“Imagine a girl in a classroom,” said Marion Apio. “She is in pain, and she is not aware that her menses have begun. She has no pads, and the boys are staring at her soiled dress. At home, the girl’s mother has no money to buy her a packet of sanitary pads, and her only alternative is to use an old piece of cloth. She misses school for three to five days. She falls behind. And then one day, she is so behind in her studies that she drops out. This is a situation affecting the majority of girls in rural areas of Uganda whose families are too poor to afford sanitary products.”

A baseline survey by Plan Uganda in 2018 shows that at least 18 percent of girls reported missing school because of menstruation. Tororo District in eastern Uganda reported the highest rate of girls missing from school with 30.7 percent compared to other districts in the greater North, like Lira and Alebtong, where 25.6 percent of adolescents are missing from school.

“We conducted a baseline survey in the school and found out that seven out of ten girls had missed school due to lack of sanitary towels that cost one dollar,” said Marion.

The lack of affordable sanitary products is a very common challenge, and girls in rural secondary schools often use and substitute whatever they can to ensure that they are protected during menstruation.

The 2012 Uganda Population Census showed that out of the 18 million women in the country, 24.5 percent were adolescents aged between 10-19 years, the majority of them living in rural areas and unable to afford sanitary pads.

Girls Alive Uganda is working with 40 young women between the ages of 16 and 22 in high school. They will train them to make their own sanitary products, and these young women will later train other girls in their communities.

“We are targeting one school now, which is Kisoko High School. We will train them and follow up with these 40 girls to ensure the concepts have been acquired,” said Marion.

Making one sanitary pad takes around 15–20 minutes and it is an easy process, as the girls will only need a needle, sewing thread, a pair of scissors, and a clean piece of cotton material.

Girls Alive Uganda won the Resolution Social Venture Challenge in 2018, a competition that rewards compelling leadership and promising social ventures led by youth. These young leaders earned a fellowship that includes seed funding, mentorship, and access to a network of young global change-makers to pursue impactful projects in their communities. A collaboration between the Mastercard Foundation and The Resolution Project, the Resolution Social Venture Challenge provides a pathway to action for socially responsible young leaders who want to create change that matters in their communities.

“We thought the best way to stand with the girl child is to train her on how to make reusable sanitary towels. Girls Alive Uganda will make, train, and distribute cheap, affordable pads to reduce high rates of menstruation-related absenteeism, which remains a key barrier to academic performance of the girl child in Uganda,” said Marion.

The team is determined to inspire girls in Uganda to achieve education and — like them — grow up to give back to their community.

“It has been my prayer and a dream to win the Resolution Social Venture Challenge since the journey began. We did not give up, even when we didn’t win the award when we first competed in 2017,” said Susan Lokolimoe.

For Marion, being both a Mastercard Foundation Scholar and a Resolution Fellow is a lifetime achievement.

“As a Scholar, you join a community of next-generation transformative African leaders, a family with a shared vision and passion to make Africa better and greater. Joining the Resolution Fellowship is a chance to champion other change-makers and an opportunity to be empowered, supported, and mentored to grow and develop, not just as an individual, but alongside the community,” she said.

Suzan Mutoni thinks her journey of improving the lives of others has just begun.

“It’s so exciting, it feels as though all my dreams have been achieved, yet it’s simply the start. I am humbled being a Mastercard Foundation Scholar, as their commitment to helping young girls like me is extremely inspiring.”

Pius Sawa is a freelance journalist based in Kenya. His stories have appeared in Reuters, Farm Radio International, and Inter Press Service.