LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Ugandan schoolgirl Auma got her first period she asked her mother for sanitary pads. Her mother suggested she find herself a husband to pay for them. Auma was just 12.
Auma’s story is not uncommon. Many girls in Uganda drop out of education when they begin menstruating because their schools lack proper washrooms or because they cannot afford costly sanitary products which are all imported.
Aid agency Plan International says hundreds of girls are forced into child marriages by parents too poor to buy hygiene products.
Many others are pressured into having sex by boys who offer to buy them sanitary items in return. Some end up pregnant and drop out of school.
Girl’s menstrual health, normally a taboo subject in conservative Uganda, made headlines this year when a high profile campaigner on the issue was arrested and detained for calling President Yoweri Museveni “a pair of buttocks” in a Facebook post.
University lecturer Stella Nyanzi unleashed a series of colorful attacks on the president and his wife after he failed to keep an election promise to provide sanitary pads to schoolgirls.
Earlier this year, First Lady Janet Museveni, who is also minister for education, said the government did not have sufficient funds.
Nyanzi promptly launched a crowdfunding campaign #Pads4GirlsUg to collect donations for pads to be distributed at schools.
She was released on bail in May after a month behind bars, but is on trial for cyber harassment.
A government official said the education ministry was now in talks with a national charity and a pharmaceutical company with a view to producing free hygiene products for schoolgirls.
Nyanzi’s case has shone a spotlight on an issue that development experts say is a major barrier to girls’ education.
U.N. children’s agency UNICEF has estimated around 60 percent of girls in Uganda miss class because their schools lack separate toilets and washing facilities to help them manage their periods.
Many fall behind and end up quitting school. Once out of school they are more likely to be married off.
Patrick Adupa, Plan International’s child protection program manager in Uganda, said the lack of menstrual hygiene support for schoolgirls was a strong factor in the country’s high drop-out rate.
More than 40 percent of girls fail to complete primary school and only a fifth start secondary school, Adupa said.
“Education is a very powerful tool in the prevention of child marriage,” he added.
“When girls are out of school because they cannot manage their periods it’s hard for them to avoid marriage.”
Although Uganda has banned child marriage, four in 10 girls are wed before they turn 18, and one in 10 before 15, UNICEF says.
Adupa said sanitary products could cost girls around $2 a month - a prohibitive price in a country where nearly one in five people lives on less than $1 a day.
Instead girls often use old rags, dried leaves or grass or paper - sometimes tearing pages from school books.
Auma was lucky. Her mother did not force her to marry and she is now 15 and still in school in Tororo district in eastern Uganda.
But teenager Christine Amusugut was not so fortunate. When she complained about using rags, her mother suggested she find a husband to buy her hygiene products.
“Most of my friends dropped out of school because they did not have basic things they needed like sanitary pads, just like me,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Tororo.
Amusugut, now 19, said she had got good grades at school and had wanted to be a nurse, but was “sold” at 16 to her husband’s family for $40 as her widowed mother struggled to make ends meet.
Plan International called for Uganda to reduce the cost of sanitary pads, ensure schools had separate girls’ toilets and introduce sex education to destigmatize menstruation.
Adupa said there was a lot of ignorance around periods.
At one school, boys told aid workers they thought girls who bled had been victims of sexual violence and drew demeaning pictures on the blackboard.
“The effect on the girls was devastating: many skipped school to avoid the bullying. Some never returned,” Adupa said.
To tackle the stigma, several aid agencies have set up menstrual hygiene clubs at schools across the country where girls can make their own reusable cotton sanitary pads with removable waterproof linings.
Boys are included in some clubs, taking the pads they make home to their sisters.
Uganda is not the only country looking at providing free sanitary towels as a way to boost girls’ education levels.
Kenya and Zambia have also promised to supply pads to schoolgirls - although aid agency WaterAid said Zambia had yet to commit any funding.
Economists say keeping girls in school not only protects them from child marriage but boosts national prosperity.
An educated girl is more likely to be economically productive and to have healthier and better educated children of her own, creating a ripple effect.
“We have a saying in Uganda, educate a girl, educate a nation,” Adupa said.
Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, resilience and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.