A classroom full of girls, Primary Four to Primary Seven, all dressed alike in sky-blue jumpers, the uniform of Atratraka Primary School, Chiro Town, a few hundred metres from the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The first of a few classes today, it would seem, and I am feeling a bit over my head.
The new library – a re-purposed classroom – has been painted, decorated with a rainbow. Two days ago we shelved about 1,000 books, creating the only library in the District. Schools, so many schools without books. No wonder our partner organisation, CEPAD (Community Empowerment for Peace & Development) chose girls’ education as a central project to begin their work. But what they learned when they first came to this school and sat down in circles with adolescent girls came as a surprise: a topic so often left unaddressed. Shyly, after the conversations got underway, one of the braver girls would whisper, ‘Do you have any pads? Sanitary pads?’
Today we will hand out 948 pads – made of locally-grown organic cotton, sewn by local tailors, packed in colourful hand-made bags along with one pair of underpants, a note of encouragement and a black plastic bag for mid-day soiled pads – to 237 girls, the first of what will eventually be 4,000. Another 550 pads will be left with the teachers for emergencies, including and especially for those girls who find themselves menstruating for the first time at school.
Someone tells a story. A girl did just that, had her first period at school, staining her blue uniform, turning the boys into a laughing, teasing, taunting mob, joined by some girls. The girl fled home, never to return to school. The shame, the embarrassment was too much, the humiliation beyond bearing. Easier to quit.
It’s an all-too-common story: menarche is followed by an abrupt end to a girl’s education, making her vulnerable to early marriage, early and many pregnancies, here in West Nile state where the life expectancy ranges between 39 and 42 years.
Since Partera puts a strong focus on gender, I felt comfortable doing the ‘girl empowerment’ part. But as it turns out, I am also doing sex ed. Biology; drawing pictures on the blackboard, upside-down pears with wings. I am feeling a bit over my head as I figure out by the seat of my pants what to say. Trained to sit five to a bench, they huddle in the middle row, leaving one at the front for me to perch on.
I begin by asking if there are any boys in here, hiding perhaps? No, just us girls, they giggle. OK, let’s have some girl-talk, just us. We’re going to talk about what we have that boys don’t have. (Meanwhile, the boys are starting to figure out that something interesting and somehow forbidden is happening in the classrooms while other staff are distracting them with games and t-shirts. Some stand on tiptoe to peer in the windows, shooed away by teachers standing guard.)
What unfolds is part biology, part comedy, part cultural norms (Ugandans, Irene and Rose, do that part), part technical show-&-tell on how these button-on pads work, how to wash them (they’ll last a year) and how to fend off your mother, sisters and friends who would like to ‘borrow’ them. We also talk about fending off boys, fending off shame, feeling proud about being a girl, becoming a woman, the ability to gestate and birth a child, to feed her or him with these breasts. When you’re ready. When you’re well on the way to becoming what you are dreaming of becoming. Some want to be nurses, some teachers; one a bank manager.
Such a simple solution, multiplying exponentially the chances of girls staying in school, girls graduating, young women going off to university, women taking their place in the public square, in political, economic, social, cultural, religious spaces where their voices are heard and make a difference.