Uganda: Where Menstrual Health and the Climate Crisis Meet - Safe Girl Reusable Pads #AfricaClimateHope

Safe Girl reusable sanitary pads.
5 July 2022

Johannesburg — Catherine Nakayemba was just starting high school when her very first menstrual cycle came. She wasn't sure what was happening, and thought she might be sick. In the school bathroom, she used pages from a book to stop the blood from staining her school uniform. This is the experience that launched her quest for safe and dignified menstruation for young girls and women in rural Uganda.

Growing up in an orphanage, Nakayemba wasn't always able to access sanitary basics, or even the welcome advice of a mother figure. After speaking to her friends and schoolmates she realised that most of them had gone through the same confusion about menstruation. Teachers had been vague about menstrual hygiene and many young girls, like Nakayemba, had ended up with an infection after using unsafe materials like toilet paper, material from a mattress or dirty pieces of cloth. This also meant that many girls were forced to stay home and miss school when they were menstruating.

According to the United Nations, over 800 million women between the ages of 15 and 49 are menstruating on any given day. Yet, a significant proportion of women have little or no access to feminine hygiene care during their menstrual cycle. And while menstruation has long been associated with girls and women, there are many other people who menstruate. Intersex, transgender, and non-binary people, who don't identify as women may be able to menstruate.

In 2016, Nakayemba and her two friends - Atuhurra Angella Marjorie and Ndagire Corret - decided to start Safe Girl Reusable Pads, a small business with a vision to create reusable sanitary pads for women and girls. Safe Girl is based in a rural village in Mpigi District and currently employs 11 young mothers to make the pads for rural communities.

"We make reusable menstrual kits that have two reusable sanitary pads, a cotton knicker, a piece of mosquito repellent soap, storage bag and a small booklet with instructions. We also conduct menstrual awareness campaigns in rural areas and rural schools, giving information about menstruation, menstrual hygiene, sanitation, and the female reproductive system at large," Nakayemba says.

The Environmental Impact of Menstruation

Reusable sanitary towels can be used for up to two years, making them ideal for people living in rural areas with no toilets, electricity or running water. They are also inexpensive and environmental friendly. This is good news when it come to the climate crisis and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Plastic is a product of the fossil fuel industry. According to the World Wildlife Fund, "the process of extracting and transporting those fuels, then manufacturing plastic creates billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases. For example, 4% of the world's annual petroleum production is diverted to making plastic, and another 4% gets burned in the refining process".

But not only does producing plastic use lots of energy, it also causes a great deal of pollution. According to a report by the UN's Environment Programme - Single-use menstrual products and their alternatives, Recommendations from Life Cycle Assessments - single-use menstrual products such as tampons and pads are a significant contributor globally to single-use plastic waste. The content can be up to 90% plastic and items are often individually wrapped. In Europe and the U.S. some 49 billion and 19 billion single-use menstrual products are used each year.

Of these billions of products, the vast majority in Europe and the U.S. approximately 87% and 80% respectively ends up in landfills where the plastic components can take up to 500 years to break down, potentially releasing toxic chemicals into the environment as they degrade and generating micro-plastics that threaten the health of ecosystems. Single-use menstrual products have a potential to block sewers, cause flooding, and pollute freshwater and marine environments as they are at times not disposed correctly, for example, flushed down the toilet. In the UK these products are one of the most frequently collected items in beach clean-ups with an average of 5 pieces of menstrual products waste picked up every 100 metres.

Questions have also been raised about the quality of the materials used in making sanitary pads for sale in African countries, with many people saying that it caused 'painful rashes, itching, and a severe burning sensation".

While recycling is presented as a solution to global plastic waste crisis, very little of what is produced actually gets recycled. "Of the seven billion tonnes of plastic waste generated globally so far, less than 10% has been recycled. Millions of tonnes of plastic waste are lost to the environment, or sometimes shipped thousands of kilometres to destinations where it is mostly burned or dumped. The estimated annual loss in the value of plastic packaging waste during sorting and processing alone is US$ 80-120 billion", according to UNEP.

"Systemic change is needed to stop the flow of plastic waste ending up in the environment."

The downside to plastic use has led to a great deal of activism to reduce its use and eliminate single-use plastics entirely. This has led to a process to draft a global plastics treaty. According to UN News, global leaders and representatives from 175 nations, have 'endorsed a historic resolution' at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi in March 2022 to end plastic pollution, and forge an international legally binding agreement, by the end of 2024. It looks to deal the full lifecycle of plastic, including its production, design and disposal.

Funding and Covid-19 Impact

Safe Girl has faced a number of challenges including lack of finance. The Covid-19 pandemic affected the business negatively as Safe Girl sources most of its material from China and the UK. They were not able to receive the materials on time during the hard lockdowns which slowed them down. "In 2020 we made no profit, we had to send all our employees home. We also could not do any campaigns because gatherings were prohibited but in 2021 we started picking up but still at a slow pace," she says.

Nakayemba says getting any form of assistance from the government has been the hardest and believes that in Uganda it is hard for the youth or small business to get in touch with the government.

Another challenges is that in Uganda, like many African countries, people who menstruate continue to face persistent myths and misconceptions surrounding menstruation making it uncomfortable to discuss menstrual health and hygiene freely.

"Apart from the biggest challenge of needing finance,  the other challenge has been getting to change people's mindset about the reusable pads. Everyone is now using disposable pads, for those of us who can afford and people living in urban areas. Getting to tell those people that this product is 100% safe and is chemical-free and getting them to change from the disposable throwing away of pads to this washable material is a big challenge which requires a lot of time and marketing," she says.

In 2022 Nakayemba's business was one of the four finalists to share the U.S.$4,450 Savvy Prize 2022 for Impact-Driven Entrepreneurs. This Prize seeks to recognize and support the efforts of Savvy Fellows working to solve some of the world's most pressing problems through innovative and sustainable ways. The prize allowed Safe Girl to be able to access web-hosting for the next 10 years, which Nakayemba says could help the business sell the products online.

"My hope for the business is that we get the visibility, that Safe Girl needs to be known nationally in Uganda, and then we also want to cover East Africa. We hope to create branches, distribution channels in all of East African communities, to be able to provide the information in rural areas, to be able to provide information on menstruation and menstrual hygiene. What I can say is that a lot of people are not aware that this is an issue that needs to be tackled. And it has hindered many young girls and women to boost their lives and their future. So it is not a work that Safe Girl can do alone. It is for all of us to come together and support the young girls and women," Nakayemba says.

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