Imagine having to skip lessons just because it’s that time of the month

Words by Kiera Chapman

No one enjoys the pang of a sharp cramp their period brings, but in the West world we are are usually able to shake it off and carry on with the rest the day.

Across Africa it’s a different story. Here, according to UNESCO, one in ten adolescent girls regularly misses school due to menstruation, and then eventually drops out. Research by Oxford University also found that in areas where girls aren’t provided with any education about periods and puberty, absenteeism among girls is 17% higher in comparison to areas where this education is provided. This equates to three and half days of school missed a month, every month. For girls who are in one of the most essential stages of their lives, the effects of this are far more serious than a few days sick leave.

For the students of St Mary’s School, in the remote region of Karamoja, north-eastern Uganda, missing school due to your period has always been a common occurrence – until now.

An outstanding group of teenagers have come together, alongside international charity WaterAid, to smash menstruation myths and promote education around periods and sanitation by singing, dancing, and being all-round badass performers. They call themselves the WASH Club (which stands for water, sanitation and hygiene), and regularly put on performances to play out the valuable lessons they’ve learned in order to break the taboo surrounding periods.

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Esther, 16, WASH Club member (R) helps her mother Maritina (L) wash the dishes at her home near Namalu, Karamoja Region, Uganda, July 2017. Credit WaterAid/ Eliza Powell

Esther, 16, is a student at St Mary’s and a member of WASH. She said: ‘Before, when we told our parents to buy us pads, they told us to just use our knickers. In our hygiene club, we have learned how to make sanitary pads and also teach our friends about menstruation. Now things are changing.’

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WASH Club members act during a performance to raise awareness of WASH practices in Namalu, Uganda. Credit WaterAid/ Eliza Powell

One of the myths concerning your period in Uganda is that the onset means you are ready to be married. At 15, Fiona – who is also part of WASH – knows this, but is adamant it is far from her only option, saying: ‘You are not ready to marry because you are still young. I first want to finish my studies, get my job, then marry.’ Fiona shares her newfound knowledge with her mother Alice, 32, who is impressed: ‘She is the one who told me to construct a latrine and taught us how to make reusable period pads.’

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The story of St Mary’s WASH Club is shown in a powerful new film, supported by the People’s Postcode Lottery. The video, as part of WaterAid‘s global campaign The Water Fight, aims to help make clean water and toilets normal for every child and every school everywhere by 2030.

Tim Wainwright, Chief Executive for WaterAid highlights the significance of change arriving in the form of a child’s voice. ‘Children are powerful agents of change and are vital in helping us spread the awareness of the importance of good sanitation and menstrual hygiene. The efforts by the hygiene club at St Mary’s are truly inspiring; they are helping really transform lives in their community, and the effect will be felt among generations to come.’

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