Corinne Linnecar is a returned volunteer who travelled to Uganda in 2014 on our International Citizen Service (ICS) programme. In this post, she reflects on a project that she set up in her community in Uganda to enable girls to stay in school and complete their education.
Restless really is the perfect name for this Charity. Being in Uganda made me restless. I was itching to have a grand impact, to make a big difference, to help and to feel like my three months would leave a lasting impression.
Although the programme as a whole does make a huge impact in country it’s a long old road, with attitudes, opinions and behaviours changing over generations, not over months. So for many volunteers it’s sometimes hard to see that your time and efforts really are effecting change. It also takes time to understand what changes need to be made and what strategy or project is going to be the most useful, sustainable and successful when carrying out these changes.
I’ve never used or heard the phrase “little victories” quite so much as I did during my three months in Uganda. It was almost our motto whilst volunteering, acknowledging to one another that all those little victories needed to be celebrated and were achievements, whether it was simply a shy student finally participating in class or successfully arranging an event with a local health care centre, these victories are what add up to the great success of the programme as a whole but don’t always feel like the gigantic successes they combine to be.
It was by pure serendipity that I found a need in my community, Makutu, and in fact identified a need on a national scale throughout Uganda. A simple note “I need always” from a young girl is all it took to kick start our project.
Millions of girls across the globe fail to manage the most common, natural and uniquely female body process – menstruation. With little money to spare and parents not deeming sanitary products worth the expense many girls attempt to manage with pieces of old rag, foam mattresses or banana fibres. Not only does this mean they are highly at risk of infections, it also leaves room for embarrassing leaks and discomfort all seeming to add weight to the “week of shame” notion. The impact being that millions of girls and women are prevented from carrying on with their daily lives, whether this be school, work or other responsibilities and instead are shunned, shy away and spend the week locked away at home.
The dropout rate of girls in secondary school is beyond high. Fewer than half the number of girls finish year four as begin year two in Makuutu Seed and unfortunately this is not a unique case with similar figures seeming to be reflected across much of rural Uganda. In two years half the number of girls dropout of school. Why? Well, a girl absent from school due to menstruation for four days of every 28 day cycle loses nearly two weeks of learning every school term. This of course causes girls to fall behind perhaps so far that they cannot catch up, never mind the possibility of missing exams and other important school dates. Girls education is not generally regarded as highly important with the underlying assumption seeming to be that a girl will only grow up to be a wife and mother anyway. This kind of social expectation disempowers young women and with no support or external motivation to stay in school and achieve an education many young girls simply don’t, they dropout.
I’d seen some posts on the internet back home from environmentally conscious American women who were keenly making and using reusable sanitary pads to cut down on waste. The average woman uses around 20 tampons or sanitary pads per cycle and on average a woman menstruates for forty years meaning that every woman bins around 9,600 tampons or sanitary pads in her lifetime – a separate environmental problem all together. However, this seemed to offer the beginnings of a plan and a solution.
I set about creating a project that would use local resources and concentrated on teaching girls the knowledge and skills to empower themselves. Sustainability is so important in regards to non profit projects and the only way that I believe this project would live on once we departed the country. The idea of the project was received well by my fellow volunteers and before long there were two of us ambitiously determined to meet the needs of the community. We designed a reusable pad using old clothes or fabric that could be hand sewn and was simple enough to teach to girls with little to no sewing experience. We gathered together off cuts of materials from local tailors, an amazing free source of fabric, and ensured to keep our materials down to a minimum with our final lesson using only fabric, scissors, needles, thread, paper and pins making certain that those with very little finances could still make their own sanitary pads. The response from the teachers we approached about running sessions on menstrual hygiene and reusable sanitary pads was marvellous, with them keenly accepting and allowing us much needed time with small groups of girls.
We quickly discovered the severe lack of knowledge Ugandan youth have about their own bodies, feminine hygiene and puberty. Many of the girls even at age 18 were unaware why they bled. Unfortunately menstruation and puberty are regarded as taboo subjects in rural Uganda and so the only knowledge young people have is a dangerous mix of hearsay, back to front facts and guess work. Our sessions allowed girls to ask the questions they had always pondered and separate myths from facts with all girls walking away with a basic knowledge of the menstrual cycle. But perhaps more importantly girls walked away with the notion that these things are ok to discuss, menstruation is natural and not an embarrassment, and that with the right knowledge and skills menstruation doesn’t need to stop you doing anything out of the ordinary.
I’ll never forget the excitement on the girls faces when we told them we were about to teach them how to make their own sanitary pads, it was as if I’d just offered them an all access pass to the world. And in fact, we kind of had. The simple act of being able to make themselves sanitary pads could allow these girls to stay in school, gain a good education and the grounding for a better life. With menstruation no longer an unnecessary barrier the world is once again their oyster. For me, this is more than just a little victory.