Sunday, August 7, 2011

Female Health and Reusable Menstrual Pads

As an AGRADU intern, I was required to design and implement a project during my eight week internship. The first half of my project, based around health and sanitation education, culminated in the highly successful Keep Katosi Clean Day. I was thrilled with the community response as for the next several days members of the community were commenting on my participation and thanking me and Katosi C/U Primary School for our work.

The second half of my project focused on Female Health and Reusable Menstrual Pads. The idea of the Reusable Menstrual Pad was first designed by Lizzie Kazan, a 2009-2011 Peace Corps Volunteer. I adapted her program to be more suitable for Katosi primary and secondary school girls.

Over the past two weeks, I have worked with 75 female students in the P4 and P5 classes at St. John Bosco Primary School and the P5 class at Katosi C/U. My Female Health and Reusable Menstrual Pad program had two parts. Past One consisted of a discussion on Female Health. In this session, I taught about puberty, the reproductive system, the menstrual cycle and menstruation, what to do when a girl has her period, pregnancy, infertility, and how to take care of one’s body. After I spoke, I held a question and answer session. Knowing many of the girls would not feel comfortable asking questions in front of their peers, I provided each student with a slip of paper where she could anonymously write her question in English or Luganda and I would answer.

I received many questions this way. Several girls asked about what to do when she has her period – what should I do when I see blood, what should I wear, how many pads should I have, can I still go to school – and, surprisingly, about infertility. Some questions showed how extremely misguided the girls are – “Can I get pregnant by standing next to a boy?” (In the local culture, girls and boys do not interact outside of the classroom. Girls play with girls, boys play with boys.) Other questions I could not fully answer, such as questions about Candida, a vaginal yeast infection common in Uganda because of the hot and humid climate. However, all of the questions were appropriate to the conversation and showed me that the girls understood what I was teaching and were curious about their bodies.

Reproductive health is not a topic widely taught in the Ugandan school system. Many teachers feel uncomfortable with the topic and will shy away from questions or answer with very little detail. As I was expressing my desire to do this program at St. John Bosco, I spoke to several of the female teachers trying to find one to assist me. One was clearly very uncomfortable even with the idea of the topic and couldn’t look me in the eye as I was telling her my intentions. Thankfully, the teacher I found, Juliet, was very excited and even made a reusable pad for herself. Each school has at least one Senior Woman and Senior Man, usually a teacher, who is responsible for teaching students about reproductive health and their bodies. At Katosi C/U and St/ John Bosco, the Senior Woman assisted me with my program by translating my lesson into Luganda to ensure full comprehension. It is very important to have a respected and trusted female role model present for comfort and security of the girls.

After all questions had been answered, I demonstrated how to make the reusable menstrual pads, step by step. There are many benefits to using these reusable pads. To name a few:
1. Low cost – Made from local materials that the girls can easily access.
2. Reusable – Disposable pads can be a financial burden on a girl’s family as they are expensive and cannot be reused.
3. Environmentally friendly – Disposable pads do not biodegrade, thus they tend to clog latrines and cause them to fill up quickly, rendering the latrine unusable.
4. Hygienic alternative – Many girls who cannot afford store-bought pads will use newspapers, old rags, etc. to stop the blood, increasing their risk of infection. Reusable pads offer a safe, cheap alternative.
5. Leak free – If used correctly, girls do not need to worry about leaks and can attend school worry-free for the duration of their period. Many girls skip school for the week of the period, causing them to fall far behind in their classes and putting them at a great disadvantage.

Part Two of the program is when the girls get to make their own personal reusable menstrual pad. We made ours out of old bed sheets and 100% cotton towels (needs to be a very absorbent material. An exercise book cover was used to create the template for the pad, and needles, thread, and a button were used to put it all together. I provided the girls with a list of other local and easily accessible items they can use as well.

I created a guide and information booklet on all of the material I covered which I left with the Senior Woman at the schools. It includes photos and diagrams of the reproductive system and menstrual cycle and is written using simple terms, easily understond by primary school students. A step by step guide, loaded with diagrams, on how to make a reusable menstrual pad from scratch is provided at the end of the booklet.

The girls thanked me profusely for imparting them with knowledge about female health and teaching them how to make reusable menstrual pads. I only wish I had been able to work with more schools, though I have left a book with Heidi to use with the women’s groups and for other schools, so that my program can continue.

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Beyond working extremely hard on the female health program, I have continued teaching the sanitation clubs at the schools. Last Saturday, I went with a handful of students from Katosi C/U’s Sanitation Club, Christopher, and Charles to Bukwaya, a neighboring town (45 minutes walk), to build a stove at the house of one of my students. An all day ordeal, but with the help of all who came, we built a stove from scratch using bricks, dirt dust, sawdust, wood shavings, and sticks.

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A few final thoughts

Every night when I go outside to brush my teeth, I look up at the sky. It’s amazing how much light the moon provides when the electricity is out, when there is no (or little) light pollution, or when there is not a plethora of man-made objects blocking one’s view. It’s always a peaceful moment for me, taking in the beauty of the night. Early morning and late nights are the times I use for personal reflection.

The last Tuesday night was the most remarkable night. No clouds and no electricity revealed the clearest sky I have ever seen. I felt like I was floating in space, inside the Milky Way. As Maama Gertrude had just walked outside, I made her stop and appreciate the evening with me. No matter where I am in the world, there is always the sky to me connect me with my international family.

For my final week in Katosi, I have been very nostalgic, reflecting on my time and beginning the farewells. I would love to stay longer to further my relationships, to expand my Female Health and Reusable Menstrual Pad program, to live as one with a community I have only known for eight weeks and yet one to which I feel deeply connected. I don’t think the women, students, teachers, and friends know what a profound impact they have made on my life. I would not trade my experience and my relationships for anything. As hard as it is to leave, I know I am not truly leaving. A part of me will forever remain in Katosi. One day, I hope to return to Katosi, and I know that one day I will.


Lisa said...

Hi Leslie,

Thanks for your blog post. I've been trawling the internet for info on making reusable pads with a view to doing something similar here in Cambodia. I'd be really interested in hearing more and receiving any more info that you'd be happy to share. My email is

Any info or advice appreciated.


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