- While on the campaign trail, on November 12, 2015 at Alira Primary School in Alebtong District, President Museveni pledged his government would provide free sanitary pads to school girls.
- Training women empowers Tigah because as she moves around different districts she learns about the challenges women face and how they overcome them.
Imagine you are walking down the muddy road in your neighbourhood. Probably, you are hurrying to the kiosk to buy salt, or you are walking to the stage, trying to dodge the slippery parts of the road and hoping an empty taxi will pass by to save you the walk.
Suddenly, you notice a used sanitary pad in the middle of the road, right in front of you. In disgust, you will probably check your stride for a second, and then, move on.
The haves and the have nots
Now, swing your thoughts to a village in Kapchorwa District where a menstruating girl has to spend five days sitting in a banana plantation. If she is lucky, she will use banana tree bark (ebyaayi) as sanitary pads.
If she is unlucky, she will kneel on a mound of dust with the heel of her foot at the entrance of her vagina. Every time she feels her birth canal filling up, she removes the heel so the blood can flow into the dust. Her female relatives bring her food in the plantation and at night, she leans on top of a hole in the ground, in the hut.
The first scenario involves privilege – to buy pads and litter the environment as we wish. The other two girls though, have to spend five precious days away from school.
Sorry, government cannot help
In all scenarios, it would be naïve to count on the government’s help. As cars pass over the used pad, it will merge with the mud.
While on the campaign trail, on November 12, 2015 at Alira Primary School in Alebtong District, President Museveni pledged his government would provide free sanitary pads to school girls. “I want all our daughters to attend school and remain there … One of the reasons that force our daughters out of school is that when their periods start, they do not have sanitary pads. When they are in class, they soil their dresses. So they run away from school...,” he said.
Recently, the Minister of Education told Parliament her government was unable to fulfill the pledge.
Trying to do it on our own
But, if women are anything, they are enterprising. Build a wall in their daughters’ paths, and they will find a way to help them climb over it.
You can feel that enthusiasm in this classroom at Lake Victoria School, Entebbe. These women are an odd assortment – young mothers, middle-aged women, old women, the deaf, and a few girls. Some are holding bits of maroon fabric, sewing uneven stitches using all manner of thread – red, white, green and black. As they sew, they listen to others sharing their menstrual experiences. At the back of the room, six tailors are making reusable sanitary pads on sewing machines.
The women in the class
“In our day, we tied a string around the waist and passed it between the legs, like a T-strings,” says Christine Oonyu, continuing, “Then, we would place a large piece of cloth between our legs and tuck it into the string at the back and front. That was the only way we could walk faster to school. I know this is still done in villages today.”
The women laugh but they agree they cannot afford to buy pads every month. Rhoda Banda, an LCV woman councillor, is learning to sew the reusable pads to help out her daughters. “I began menstruating at 15 when I was already married. I have always used rags. When I have extra money, I buy a packet of pads. But, my daughters and I have agreed that we need to save money.”
Sewing pads also makes economic sense to Banda, another participant in the class. She plans to sell the pads and donate a few to vulnerable women in her area.
Doreen Tigah, the facilitator of the workshops moves up and down the room, giving bits of advice, displaying a finished pad. “Use the money your husband gives you to buy a secondhand bed sheet and towel. Sew for your daughter, but teach her to sew, as well, so that she can learn to live within your means.”
The outer pad measures 13 by nine centimetres while the liner measures seven by three centimetres. The liners – in which face towels are sown – should be different sizes of thickness depending on one’s flow. A button on the base material ensures that the pad is fastened around the knicker. A packet of reusable pads, containing six liners and two outer pads, which last two years, costs Shs7,000.
Situations giving rise to a need
Tigah, a teacher and social worker, is the administrator of Miryante Orphanage in Kyegegwa District. She considers the making of reusable pads a skill every women should have. “When I began my periods, I used an old bed sheet. But, walking was tricky because school was 2km away from home. When I joined boarding school, my father could only afford two packets of sanitary pads per term. To be economical, I wore one pad from morning till evening and another one from evening till morning.”
When she joined the orphanage, donors were providing funds to buy sanitary pads for the girls. However, in 2011, a friend volunteering with the Peace Corps advised her to find an alternative.
“Lola asked me what would happen if the orphanage collapsed and the girls had to return to their villages. She is a white woman and she was using reusable pads yet she could buy imported pads. I decided to buy AFRIpads for the girls. A packet contained four reusable pads which could last a year, and cost Shs4,500.”
After a year, Tigah had 30 pubescent girls. AFRIpads became expensive. “A Japanese friend visited me and I tore some of her reusable pads to see what they were made of. In 2013, when the orphanage began a technical school, I talked to the tailoring instructor and we made two packets of pads – six in each. I used my packet for two years. After that, the girls began sewing their own pads.”
In 2014, with funds from a friend in New Zealand, Tigah’s tailoring class made reusable pads they would donate to schools. However, she soon came to the realisation that this was not sustainable because every year, a new set of girls began menstruating. “It was better to teach women to make pads for their daughters instead of me donating them. I came up with a concept paper that I presented to Hon Spelanza Baguma, a chief in Kyegegwa (now Woman MP, Kyenjojo), who shared.
A friend gave me the contacts of Woman MPs and in October 2016, I began meeting them and sharing my concept. I advised them that their programmes of buying sanitary pads for their constituents would not change anything.”
Spreading the cheer
Many MPs bought Tigah’s idea and invited her to their districts. So far, she has held workshops in Kapchorwa, Kakumiro, and Entebbe and she is scheduled to visit Kiruhura, Kyegegwa, Mityana, and Mpigi. She was supposed to visit Moroto but unfortunately the Woman MP passed away recently.
“When the president promised that the government would buy sanitary pads for school girls, I knew it would not work out,” Tigah says, adding, “We have many priorities, chief of which is improving the health sector. How can government buy pads when teachers are striking over low salaries? In my concept, training school girls is not a priority because some of them look down on reusable pads. Besides, the school will not provide them with fabric. I decided to reach the mothers in each community then they, in turn, would teach their daughters.”
The 2015 tailoring class of the orphanage now works with Tigah because she receives orders for reusable pads which the MPs planned to launch in their districts on Women’s Day. Some orders involve 1,000 packets. The girls are the ones who train the women to sew in the workshops, which Tigah holds only on weekends. The MPs fund the logistics and provide the learning materials.
The materials used
The polyester viscose (PV) fabric used in the workshops is too expensive for a low-income woman; each metre costs Shs12,000. PV is a manmade fabric similar to linen and cotton. Inside the reusable pads, the group uses small face towels that cost Shs1,000 each. “A secondhand pure cotton bed sheet cost Shs5,000. Instead of face towels, they could buy an old towel and cut it up. I advise them to wash both materials thoroughly first.”
One woman is not fully convinced about the towel, though. “Towels are tricky to wash,” she says, continuing, “Now, we are covering them, which means if they are not properly washed they can cause inflammation to the skin. Can we use another fabric?”
There are sounds of acknowledgement from the other women. However, Tigah reminds them that the only way to know a cloth is clean is by looking at the colour of the rinse water. “You cannot use sponge because after a few washes, it will tear. Do not put a kaveera in the towel because it will also tear.”
Training women empowers Tigah because as she moves around different districts she learns about the challenges women face and how they overcome them.
Tigah’s other work
Doreen Tigah also trains women to make pampers, liquid and bar soap, candles, and crafts. She exports the crafts to Ohio, US through Root Cause Uganda, an organisation she formed with American friends. The organisation sells the crafts in its shop and repatriates the money to Uganda.