1 September 2017

Uganda: Women and Children Grappling With Menstrual Hygeine in Refugee Camps

Reida Nyoka left Lanya county in Central Equatoria state of South Sudan in March 2017.

Together with her husband and nine children, they were escaping the onslaught against innocent civilians by warring groups in the world's youngest nation.

For a 45-year-old, Nyoka has quickly greyed as can be seen through an opening in her headscarf. She reveals that she escaped the war through the South Sudan-Uganda border to Koboko district.

At the reception centre in Koboko, she and her family were quickly processed and transferred to Imvepi refugee settlement in Arua. There, she lives with one of her children, the other eight attend a school some kilometres away. Meanwhile, her husband returned to South Sudan to join the war.

Much as Nyoka is clearly approaching menopause, she is disappointed by the lack of sanitary pads in the camp.

Four hours on a bus and a ferry ride away is Zoka South primary school located in Maaji refugee settlement camp in Adjumani. Here, 14-year-old Kareo Juliet Amadio attends Primary 5.

Also from South Sudan, she joined the school in February 2016. Amadio first experienced her menstrual periods in May 2017 and luckily for her, the school's senior woman had taken her through what to expect when this time of growing up comes. More so, she had interacted with other girls who had gone through the same; so, she was mentally prepared.

Unlike Nyoka, Amadio is a lucky girl. The school, supported by Plan International, a non-government organization supporting sanitation and hygiene of young girls and women in refugee camps, provided sanitary pads and soap for girls in the school. According to Evelyne Asitolo, the school's senior woman, each girl from Primary 3 to Primary 7 received a reusable pad.

"It was a very difficult situation for me as senior woman," Asitolo reveals about the time when the school was not in position to provide pads to the pupils.

"The girls would absent themselves from school, while I had to send home those who came to school but started menstruating while in school."

She narrates a story of a Ugandan pupil from the community who refused to go home because it was far. "This girl lives across the Zoka forest. She treks several kilometres to school every day. According to Asitolo, on this particular day, the pupil was afraid of making that journey back through the forest on her own.

"The pupils normally begin to walk at 5am in order to make it to school on time. Making this girl go home was unfair, yet my hands were tied," Asitolo says.

She reveals that she had to sacrifice the last disposable pad she had for herself in order to help the young girl. Asked if she understands menstruation and proper care when menstruating, Amadio tells us that she takes four baths every day during this time of the month.

After each bath, she washes the disposable pad and changes to another.

"I must make sure that I am completely dry before I wear the new pad to avoid contracting an infection," she says.

The challenge, however, is the lack of bathrooms and changing rooms at the school. The girls are left with no option but to bathe from the latrines. Luckily for them, though, the latrines, the only existing concrete structure in the school, are only accessible for girls. Boys and teachers use the makeshift latrines nearby.

Out of Zoka South primary school's population of 1,644 pupils, 792 are girls. Of these, 207 are in Primary 3, 127 in Primary 4, 77 in Primary 5 and 31 in Primary 6.

These are the classes attended by girls that have begun menstruating. Amadio's classmate, 14-year-old Robert Anyanjo, is shy when asked if he understands menstruation. After persisting, he told The Observer that occasionally, he has alerted more than one of his classmates who have stained their skirts.

"Sometime I go and tell the teacher because many times when we alert them they hide, or sit in one place for hours," he says, adding that the rest of the pupils distance themselves from girls who are menstruating.

Like Plan International, Oxfam Uganda has intervened in supporting the girl-child in menstrual hygiene. According to Peace Immaculate Chandini, Oxfam's gender and protection officer, more than 800 sanitary kits have been distributed in eight primary schools across three refugee settlements of Bidi Bidi, Rhino camp and Imvepi refugee settlement.

"The kits that we distributed between June and now include a bucket, reusable sanitary pads, a sheet of cloth and soap," Chandini says, adding that more than 500 kits are yet to be distributed.

So, much as the organisations in the region are there as an emergency intervention to a situation that broke out as a result of war, the benefits of their interventions have been extended even to the host communities. For example, when distributing free sanitary kits and pads, both refugee children and children from the host communities benefit equally.

However, unlike the pupils, women like Nyoka have been left out. Training received from public health officers on using cloth as pads has been insufficient. This, according to Nyoka, has left mothers with no option but to sell the food rations provided to the refugees in order to buy sanitary pads.

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