President Museveni, who is currently campaigning for another term, has been the president of Uganda since 1986. One of the promises he has made on the campaign trail is that should he be re-elected, his government will provide free sanitary pads to girls in school. He made the pledge on the fourth day of his campaign trail, in Alebtong district. It is probably the first time in this country that a president has talked about women’s sanitary needs: and used it to ask for votes, too.
On the one hand, this is exciting. The message has finally got through to the top: menstrual hygiene management is a crucial problem and issue in this country. On the other, why are we going to get pads now and did not earlier?
But would you vote someone because they promise to provide pads? I would, if it were an honest systematic disruption to take care of the girl-child in school and not a campaign ploy. The stakes are higher when it is the same government that turns around and tells you what it could do better to keep girls in school.
The sanitary pads, according to coverage of the campaign rally in Lango, would be distributed in UPE schools. The Universal Primary Education (UPE) system was the brainchild of the current government. If it worked, it would have solved a lot of issues in the education system: from the education of girls to access to education from less privileged parts of the country.
And, why today? Why are the pads being introduced today, and not earlier? What is this source of the pads that has deluded us for 30 years, that we have finally found now?
Only a few weeks before, a local daily carried the headline “Do not wait for free sanitary towels- MP“. Bukomansimbi MP Susan Namaganda told parents that the government cannot provide everything and they should be able to improvise. But this is the system that providence has thrust us into, and shaming parents and referring to the days of rugs and other improvisions is not the answer. At a neighborhood shop, Maxi pads which are the cheapest, go for about UShs 3000. In supermarkets, the price is even higher. Imagine a housemaid who makes about UShs100,000 a month; she is mother to a teenage girl and three other younger children. Asking her to buy pads, given her other needs, is a bit of a stretch. It is for such people, and others in even more dire circumstances, that you wish the government would step in.
The reality is that millions of girls cannot afford sanitary towels. It affects their education and they get held back just because they happen to have uteruses that shed every month. All this while we spend millions of shillings from taxpayers in unnecessary and extravagant payments for government officials, buy expensive cars that cause traffic with their convoys and gadgets for parliamentarians.
It is therefore great that President Museveni is considering adding pads to the universal education project. The girls who would benefit are not registered voters, but he understands that many women- and men- will appreciate the gesture, having been victims of a system that never took such needs seriously.
Probably this is also a good time for the government – and the president – to recognise and take seriously local innovations that have tried to solve the pads problem. Makapads, made at Makerere University, from papyrus. Banapads, as well, made from banana stems and herbal leaves. These innovations have received their fair share of media attention, but are still unavailable in supermarkets or stores across the country. If only the government supported such initiatives and made them bigger and accessible.
I hate to be skeptical when such a promise is exciting because we do need those pads so girls can stay in school, but women have been bleeding since time immemorial. Did the government just realise, when there was a 2016 vote at stake, that it was time to take care of things?