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LAST week the Scot­tish gov­ern­ment launched a pi­lot scheme tack­ling pe­riod poverty. The six-month scheme will see free prod­ucts given to women and girls from low in­come house­holds in Aberdeen. It’s shock­ing to think that in some parts of the UK, young women are forced to miss out on ed­u­ca­tion be­cause they don’t have ac­cess to men­strual hy­giene prod­ucts, but it is hap­pen­ing.

Ear­lier this year, char­ity Free­dom4Girls started hand­ing out free san­i­tary prod­ucts in Leeds, as girls were miss­ing school be­cause they couldn’t af­ford men­strual hy­giene prod­ucts. But of course, this prob­lem isn’t just unique to the UK. Ev­ery year, mil­lions of girls around the world miss school be­cause of their pe­riod. That adds up to count­less lessons and ex­pe­ri­ences missed be­cause of a ba­sic bi­o­log­i­cal func­tion.

With the cost of san­i­tary prod­ucts mak­ing the head­lines in the UK and stir­ring de­bate about whether they should be made avail­able free for those liv­ing in the coun­try’s most de­prived fam­i­lies, I wanted to share my ex­pe­ri­ences of this sub­ject on a re­cent trip to Uganda.

One night, I watched a Satur­day night prime time TV pro­gramme called The Peo­ple’s Par­lia­ment where that episode’s sub­ject was men­stru­a­tion. One teenage girl gave ev­i­dence of how she had to miss school when­ever she had her pe­riod be­cause there were no pri­vate wash­ing fa­cil­i­ties, the teach­ers made a fuss about her go­ing out and the boys in the class ridiculed her.

She also had no ac­cess to san­i­tary pads. As a re­sult, her ed­u­ca­tion was se­ri­ously suf­fer­ing. The school of­fi­cials squirmed as the speaker de­manded to know why they were not pro­vid­ing ba­sic fa­cil­i­ties and show­ing con­sid­er­a­tion and com­mon sense.

It made me won­der why teach­ers weren’t talk­ing openly to the class about the is­sue and help­ing young peo­ple un­der­stand the changes their bod­ies were go­ing through. But per­haps one of the most strik­ing mo­ments was when a 14-year-old boy took the mi­cro­phone and an­nounced that he would now go back to his class­mates and en­sure that all the boys showed more un­der­stand­ing and sup­port.

While men­stru­a­tion is still an un­com­fort­able topic for many men to dis­cuss – crazy in 2017 – this 14-year-old boy in­spired me to find out more.

Re­search shows that pro­vid­ing girls with free san­i­tary pads makes them less likely to miss school or drop out al­to­gether. A study of 1,000 school­girls in Uganda found the stu­dents were 17 per cent more likely to miss school when they lacked ac­cess to san­i­tary prod­ucts and in­for­ma­tion about men­stru­a­tion. In part of the world where a pack­age of san­i­tary pads costs the same as an un­skilled worker’s daily wage, many girls are so des­per­ate for them one Kenyan-based study showed 10 per cent of 15-year-old girls en­gaged in sex work just to pay for them.

On my trip, I vis­ited the cen­tre for girls run by the street chil­dren char­ity, Re­trak. One of the girls there proudly showed us how she could now make re­us­able san­i­tary pads out of rags and some web­bing; a sim­ple idea which does not need mil­lions of pounds in for­eign aid but can make a fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence in a coun­try where ed­u­ca­tional suc­cess for girls is one of the best ways to com­bat the lure of the traf­fick­ers and strengthen fam­i­lies.

Sev­eral pro­pos­als and calls have been made to en­sure that Ugan­dan girls can go to school with­out ● the interruptions of the men­strual cy­cle such as gov­ern­ment part­ner­ing with man­u­fac­tur­ers to pro­vide “free” or “low cost” alternatives.

Un­for­tu­nately, how­ever, stud­ies show drop-out and low com­ple­tion rates for girls per­sist in Uganda, and ab­sen­teeism and qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion are be­ing af­fected by the start of men­stru­a­tion, and a lack of abil­ity to man­age it.

How­ever, change is pos­si­ble. We just have to de­cide that en­sur­ing the ed­u­ca­tion of girls is worth the ef­fort and re­sources to keep them in school.... Is that re­ally such a big ask?


Sir Peter Fahy

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