Many girls in Uganda leave school due to a lack of menstrual supplies needed to manage their periods—so 12-year-old Patience and 13-year-old Kashish implemented a program called “Girls For School,” which teaches women how to make reusable sanitary pads, providing both necessary menstrual supplies and jobs for women in their community.
Global pandemics have been known to compound existing inequalities and disproportionately affect women and girls. The devastating crisis of COVID-19 follows suit—impacting adolescent girls through unprecedented school dropouts and learning losses, compromised health care and a lack of vital resources such as menstrual supplies.
To make matters worse, there has been a clear loss of peer support and a decrease in social connectivity, diminishing economic prospects and threats to personal safety. In particular, experts suspect that sexual and gender-based violence and early forced marriage are on the rise.
Despite the grim COVID-related scenario created for girls worldwide, girls themselves offer a bright ray of hope. If given the resources and tools required to take the lead, girls will identify their communities’ challenges and address them.
Global G.L.O.W., an international nonprofit focused on advancing gender equity through mentoring girls to advocate for themselves, recently experienced this bright ray of hope.
In the fall of 2018, at only 12 and 13 years old, Patience and Kashish, two Ugandan girls who participate in Global G.L.O.W. programming, traveled to New York City to participate in a Global G.L.O.W. Summit in association with the UN’s International Day of the Girl. They came to the Summit with a serious problem they wanted to solve: Many girls in their community in Uganda leave school due to a lack of menstrual supplies needed to manage their periods.
Kashish and Patience pose in their Global G.L.O.W. T-shirts (photo by Peter Niwagaba).
The issue itself is not unique. According to UNICEF, an estimated 1.8 million menstruators around the world, including girls, women and gender non-binary persons, cannot manage their menstruation in a dignified and healthy way, despite menstruation being a normal and natural process.
Undergirding these menstruation-related dropouts are the cost of menstrual supplies and pain relievers, a lack of safe bathrooms and running water at schools and the fear of being bullied by classmates, particularly boys, if spotting occurs. According to a BioMed Central research study, in Uganda specifically, students and policymakers agree that fear of bullying about menstruation and lack of menstrual supplies affects school absenteeism.
So Patience and Kashish set out to tackle this issue. They joined girl leaders from all over the world in New York City in 2018 to learn how to combat period poverty and formulate a plan that would benefit their community.
At Global G.L.O.W., we are driven by the belief that girls know what girls need. When Patience and Kashish came to us with their problem, we supported them to drive a solution.
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When they returned to Uganda, they implemented a multi-faceted program called “Girls For School,” which teaches women how to make reusable sanitary pads, providing both necessary menstrual supplies and jobs for women in their community. “Girls For School” sells these reusable supplies to those that can afford them and donates to others, as needed, to help girls stay in school.
“Because of our program, the number of girls who have dropped out of school has greatly reduced,” Patience said.
As part of their program, Patience and Kashish also started a peer education initiative to teach boys in school to stop bullying girls about menstruation. It promotes menstruation as the normal bodily function that it is and aims to make school a safer place for girls to attend.
Patience, who is passionate about educating boys and decreasing bullying for girls, said in a recent interview, “[Menstrual education] helps them to respect the girl child, and it makes them understand that it is not okay to bully girls for being on their periods.”
“Because of our program, I believe that Patience and I have changed the mentality of our families and school members,” Kashish added.
Since its founding, the “Girls for School” project has continued to flourish. “Girls for School” has impacted 300 girls’ lives by ensuring they are able to attend school—without the fear of being bullied, without the fear of economic entrapment, without the fear of not having a pad to use. Patience and Kashish have used the additional income generated from selling menstrual supplies to pay for 40 girls’ school fees, thereby decreasing the school dropout rates even further.
At a time when safer-at-home measures limited income for many households, “Girls for School” provided women with sustainable income.
The work of Patience and Kashish has made an astronomical impact on girls in Kampala. And as we continue to face the ravages of COVID-19, supporting girls globally becomes a more urgent responsibility.
In the fight for a just, equitable and flourishing world for all—including girls—we must commit to listening to girls.
We must also use our own voices to speak up and respond to gender inequities. Follow Patience and Kashish’s lead by creating your own programming that supports local girls in your community. Be bold, learn and join the efforts that not only increase access to the menstrual hygiene supplies that girls need but the accommodations, across areas, that all girls deserve.
Follow the channels and organizations that amplify the voices of girls because increasing awareness of girls’ challenges—from girls’ perspectives—is vital to changing social norms. With heightened awareness, action can be taken to eliminate the barriers to girls’ success and safety. As Kashish so aptly puts it, Americans can “support us through raising funds for programs like ours that create sanitary wears for girls and women.”
Above all, we must support the organizations that are doing the work and choose to invest in girls. It’s a worthwhile investment, because when girls create change, they start an upward spiral—positively transforming their families, communities, countries and ultimately, the world.
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