This blog is part of Irise International’s #12DaysofChristmas Campaign.
Irise International’s Christmas Campaign invites us to give the Gift of Education. Here’s why it’s the best investment you’ll make this festive season.
Meet Florence*. She’s a 13 year old school girl from Bushenyi District, Uganda. She is top of her class at school. Her mother died giving birth to her youngest sister, Joy. Florence has decided that one day she will train to be a doctor and help the women in her country survive childbirth. Florence misses her mother but never so much as the day she thinks she is dying.
It was a rather ordinary day until she slipped out of maths class to use the pit latrine and saw the blood running down her leg. For a long moment she just stared at it. There was no toilet paper in the latrine so in the end she wiped her leg with some leaves and grass and stumbled home as quickly as she could, imagining at every step that the blood was seeping through her skirt and fearing that her neighbours would know that there was something terribly wrong with her. She spent three days furtively ripping up old bed sheets and using them to disguise the fact she was almost definitely dying. She tried to tell her father several times but each time she opened her mouth the words wouldn’t come. On the fourth day her aunt came to visit and Florence started crying. Her aunt was deeply embarrassed by Florence’s confession but explained as quickly as possible that what she was experiencing was ‘the woman’s curse.’ Florence was desperate to know more about what was happening, but all her Aunt would say was that it wasn’t nice for women to talk about such things
Three quarters of girls in Western Ugandan believe that period pain is a sign of illness.
Florence was soon to discover why it was called the curse. The maths lessons she had once loved suddenly became an endurance test. She fidgeted in her seat in constant fear that the rag had fallen out of her underwear. One day the worst thing imaginable happened to one of her classmates. The girl stood up to answer a question and revealed to the entire room the large red stain on the back of her skirt. The boys were merciless. They shouted at her that she was dirty and the girl hung her head in shame and ran from the classroom. She was too embarrassed to show her face at school for a week. After that Florence decided to stay at home on her heaviest days. Her father needed her to look after the younger children anyway and it wasn’t worth the risk. She believed she would die of humiliation if she stained her skirt at school.
The fear that had coursed through her the first time she had seen the bright red blood snaking down her leg never entirely went away. Florence worried. She worried that the pain she experienced every month was a sign she was sick. She worried when her periods were irregular that there was something wrong with her. When she heard her friend bleed for 7 days instead of Florence’s usual 5 she worried that she was abnormal. Once she nearly worked up the courage to ask her father for sanitary pads. She had an important exam coming up and of course ‘the curse’ fell at exactly the wrong time. She opened her mouth to ask but he looked so tired and stern sitting in his chair that the words died on her lips.
50% of East African schoolgirls report missing school during their period.
When she was sixteen Florence was no longer top of her class. She had somehow slipped to the bottom without really noticing it was happening. Her father began to gently suggest that he could use the money for school fees elsewhere. She didn’t blame him. She felt useless and stupid at school. The golden glow of confidence that had filled her when the little numbers in her book all danced into place had faded. The numbers seemed like an impenetrable row of soldiers now. They danced for her no longer.
It was during the rainy season that she met Ben. He was a boda bike driver with a shiny new red motorbike. He had developed a habit of lingering outside the school gates waiting for teachers who needed a paid lift into town. She liked his eyes the first time she saw him. They were always laughing even when his expression was entirely serious. One day he offered her a free lift home. The grey storm clouds hung low over the horizon like a massive belly. She accepted.
Like so many things in Florence’s life, what happened next seemed to slip entirely out of her control. She liked his eyes and when they were fixed on her, he made her feel special. He told her all sorts of things with his laughing eyes. He said that having sex could make period pain go away. He said that it was OK as long as they only did it on safe days. Florence wasn’t sure she wanted to do it at all but like so many of her words, the misgivings faded on her lips and he smothered them with his mouth.
25% of Ugandan girls are pregnant before the age of nineteen and report their first sexual experience was associated with the use of force.
Ben was kind. He bought her small gifts, nail polish, some body lotion. The sort of things her father would never have spared the money for. Once she wondered out loud about visiting the family planning clinic but Ben told her that his mother had warned him that taking pills and injections could cause infertility and deformed babies.
By her eighteenth birthday Florence was pregnant and her father grumbled affectionately about having to put together a bride price. She accepted the pregnancy. It seemed that fate had always known what was in store for her. Her dreams of going to university now seemed like a childish fantasy. She once told Ben about it and his eyes laughed with her. He too had once aspired to the ridiculous, he told her, with the grin that she was coming to love. He had planned to move to the city and become a wealthy business man. Florence laughed but she felt a little hollow inside, as though an echo of possible future was fading away. She remembered the girl who had whizzed through her homework, the girl who had surprised her teacher with her knowledge and who had always known the words to say. She remembered how once the horizon had seemed limitless and she had been a golden girl with the world at her feet.
It is time for the global community to deliver for girls like Florence.
For Florence poverty means that she lacks the freedom to choose. Florence needs and deserves the knowledge to understand and control what happens to her body and the ability to become a confident agent of change in her own life. Irise International works to develop and deliver participatory, rights-based education on menstruation and sexual & reproductive health to ensure girls like Florence reach their full potential.
This Christmas, give the gift of knowledge to young men and women to enable them to define their own futures.
Click here to give the Gift of Education and receive a free gift ethical set on donations over £15. Gift sets include jewellery made by Ugandan women and fair trade Visionary Soap who are committed to supporting enterprise in East Africa.