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More than one third of the global population needs basic sanitation. About 10 percent do not have clean water. Rotary International, one of largest humanitarian service organizations globally, and USAID, the world’s largest governmental aid agency, are partnering to make an impact.

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Keeping menstruating girls in school

Hammidah Nattabi was 13 when she got her first period — at school. When she bled through her uniform, boys laughed at her. “I was scared and didn’t know what to do,” she says. “So my friend advised me to use a handkerchief.”

A shy, slim, soft-spoken teenager, Nattabi lives with her grandmother and eight other family members in a modest, half-plastered house in the village of Malere, about 50 miles west of Uganda’s capital, Kampala. She recalls that she was afraid to tell her family about her period, and that she had no access to sanitary pads. Because of the shame the boys had made her feel, she skipped school for the next three days.

In fact, there is a growing educational problem of absenteeism caused by periods.

A recent study of adolescent girls in Uganda showed that about three-quarters of them miss at least one to three days of school per month, as many as 24 school days per year, because of menstruation.

This increases the likelihood that girls will drop out — all because of menstrual stigma and shame, as well as the lack of access to sanitary products.

Nattabi attends Ndoddo Church of Uganda Primary School, which sits on a small hill. For many years, the school did not have adequate sanitation facilities to address the needs of its pupils. There was no running water and no changing room or separate latrine compartments for girls in the upper primary grades. It was not uncommon for girls to return home during their periods because they did not have facilities at school to clean or properly dispose of their sanitary towels, or to wash themselves.

At Nattabi’s school, the Rotary-USAID partnership has contributed to the construction of a borehole and latrine block for girls, including a changing room, and an incinerator to help in the disposal of sanitary waste. With manufactured and store-bought menstrual products still financially inaccessible for most Ugandans, the partnership is also supporting schools in teaching students such as Nattabi how to make their own sanitary pads from cheaper, locally sourced materials.

For Nattabi, the effort has changed her life forever. With the skills she learned, she now can effectively manage her period. But there is still a need for increased sensitization and advocacy to break long-held menstrual taboos.

Reporting by freelance journalist Evelyn Lirri and photography by Andrew Esiebo

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