SIR PETER FAHY
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?
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Sir Peter Fahy