'Finally I knew what was happening'
Agnes, 16, shares her story of getting her period for the first time.
When Agnes was eleven, she suddenly found blood on her dress. She was in the classroom and everyone laughed at her. She started to cry, because she had no idea what was wrong with her. She thought she was dying.
“I went home immediately,” she remembers. “I did not know what was happening to me and what I could do to stop the bleeding.
"The children from my class even came round to my house to laugh at me there, too. They said: ‘Come and have a look at Agnes, she has blood on her dress. And she smells.’”
At home Agnes, whose mother died when she was very young, didn’t tell her stepmother what had happened.
“I was afraid she wouldn’t believe me. That she would think I was lying,” Agnes says.
“I also made sure my father didn’t notice. I quickly washed my dress and knickers, because the girl next door had told me that my father would go blind if he saw the blood on my clothes.”
‘My grandmother told that all girls suddenly bleed sometimes’
Once Agnes had her period a few times, she plucked up the courage to tell her grandmother.
“My grandmother told that all girls suddenly bleed sometimes and that it is normal," Agnes remembers. "I was reassured a little bit, but I still didn’t know what to do about it. Grandma told me that I should put dried banana leaves in my knickers. That helped to stop the bleeding a little bit.
“Once, grandma gave me money to buy sanitary towels. I was so glad that it protected against leaking, but unfortunately my family has no money to buy this every month. They are really expensive.”
For years, Agnes stayed home from school during her period.
“I hated missing all those lessons. I am one of the brightest pupils in my class and I want to do my best so I can become a lawyer. But the banana leaves I used for protection only worked very briefly every time.
“At home I couldn’t help fetching water and couldn’t help with the cooking. And I couldn’t play with my friends or play football with my brothers, something I really like to do. I could only lie in bed.
“I would tell my stepmother that I was sick, even though she probably knew what was really going on with me. After all, she bled every month too.”
‘The boys in the class learned that it is normal for all girls to have periods’
When Plan International UK started Health Classes at Agnes’s school, one of her teachers trained to become a Health Teacher, and the children learned everything about hygiene and the changes in girls’ and boys’ bodies.
“Finally I knew what was really going on with me when I was bleeding a few days every month,” says Agnes. “And – and this was very important – all the boys in the class learned that it is normal for all girls to have periods.
“Since these Health Classes they no longer laugh at girls who have problems with leaking. The girls feel less insecure.”
As part of the project, we also built separate girls’ toilets and an area where girls can wash when they’re on their period. The school’s Health Teachers also sell washable sanitary pads, subsidised by Plan International UK.
“Our teacher told us about the Afripad,” explains Agnes. “It is a pack of five sanitary pads that you can attach to your underwear. When there is blood in the sanitary pads you can wash them, dry them and then use them again. A pack lasts at least a whole year!”
‘I am now the only one who can talk a little about it with my father’
At home, Agnes was finally brave enough to talk to her stepmother about periods.
“She also didn’t have any idea what is happening to women every month. No one had ever told her that.
"I also told her about the Afripad. My stepmother asked how much it costs and talked about it to my father. Fortunately, my father then bought a pack for all the women in our family.”
“In my class I am now the only one who can talk a little about it with my father,” says Agnes proudly. “After all, he is the one who buys sanitary towels for me.”
With five daughters in the house, William – Agnes’s father – has made a significant investment.
“Normally girls in Uganda do not discuss such matters with their fathers,” he says. “Agnes did not dare to ask me to buy sanitary pads every month. And as a man I do not automatically think about such things, of course.
"But when my wife told me that Agnes’s teacher told her about Afripads, it seemed like a good idea to me to buy some.
“It was a lot of money, but I do not regret it. I see plenty of advantages. Agnes was afraid to go to school at first. Now she knows that she will stay clean, so she can go to class when she is on her period. And I think that is incredibly important, because it is better for her future.”
‘Every day I can go to school as normal’
William has gone even further with the purchase of the washable sanitary pads.
“My brothers live in another village, where the Afripad is not yet for sale. I bought a pack for their daughters too.
"I hope the project is introduced in more villages. Girls who can’t use these pads suffer when they are on their period and get behind at school.”
William also hopes that more fathers will start talking to their daughters.
“Some fathers believe it has nothing to do with them. But I want my daughters to trust me and be open about everything. I even talk to them about sex and getting pregnant. That is something I learned from my eldest daughter. She is a social worker and has taught me how to talk about subjects like this with my daughters."
Meanwhile, Agnes is incredibly happy with the Afripad. “Every day I can go to school as normal and help fetch water and cook at home. I can also play to my heart’s content,” she says.
“My favourite is playing football at school or with my brothers at home. I’m really good at it, especially at scoring goals. I am so glad that thanks to the sanitary pads I can even do it when I am on my period.”