The power of international student networking

Like most of her female classmates growing up in Uganda, Ritah Arishaba’s family couldn’t afford to buy feminine hygiene pads month after month. But unlike many of them, her mother taught her to make reusable pads from old clothes.

Arishaba never missed a day of school because of her periods, and she thinks it made a difference. By the time she graduated high school and landed a scholarship for college, other classmates had dropped out. Some of them “ended up getting pregnant, as young as 12 years old”, she says.

So when she came to Arizona State University as a freshman in 2015, Arishaba knew she wanted to use her education to help keep girls in school when they’re menstruating. Now, four years later, what was once “just an idea” has become “a real thing”, she says.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Arishaba is co-founder of Strong Women Strong Love, an initiative that delivers feminine hygiene products and reproductive health education to women and girls in both Phoenix, Arizona in the United States and Kakiika Village in Mbarara, Uganda, where Arishaba grew up.

Women and girls around the world can recall those anxious and awkward moments when they were caught without tampons or sanitary pads. But the broader implications for gender inequity and poverty around menstruation have gained traction in recent decades through global initiatives that aim to take the shame out of a natural biological function.

In 2013, activists launched Menstrual Hygiene Day (28 May) as part of a campaign to develop public policy around menstrual hygiene management. The World Bank has linked menstrual hygiene to UNESCO’s sustainable development agenda, which calls on governments to ensure that all students have access to quality education by 2030. UNESCO estimates that one in 10 girls worldwide misses school when her period comes around.

Arishaba credits the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program with providing her the opportunity and resources to carry out a dream goal. The programme partners with 22 universities, primarily in North America and Africa, to provide support for more than 9,000 economically disadvantaged youth who want to use their college education as a springboard for positive change in their communities. Most of them are from Africa.

The idea for Strong Women Strong Love began to take shape in Arishaba’s first year at Arizona State University (ASU), when she volunteered at a local homeless shelter. The women she met there reminded her of the girls who lived in safe houses in Uganda. In both cases, girls and women did the best they could each month despite lacking basic needs such as sanitary products, clean water and privacy. She decided she had to do something.

Her first step was to assemble a team, starting with other ASU Mastercard Scholars. Alpha Ngwenya, an economics major from Zimbabwe, agreed to coordinate the financial ins and outs of the Phoenix operation, while Tresor Cyubahiro, a software engineering major from Rwanda, spread the word by designing and maintaining the initiative’s online presence.

Also contributing expertise were US advisers and mentors who knew how to tap into resources in the local community.

Today, about 25 volunteers continue to collect donations from local churches and community organisations to distribute hundreds of pads to Phoenix-area shelters each month.

Turning point

A turning point came in 2017, when Arishaba’s team pitched a plan for adapting the Strong Women Strong Love initiative in Uganda. At a Mastercard Scholars conference in South Africa, the project earned US$2,000 in seed money from the Resolution Project, a non-profit organisation that supports social ventures developed by young aspiring leaders.

Working with churches and experts in women’s health, Strong Women Strong Love has visited safe houses in Uganda to supply girls with the skills, materials and confidence to make (and in some cases sell) their sanitary pads, just as Arishaba’s mother had taught her. Their outreach also includes educational talks on women’s reproductive health, and visits to local schools.

The academic training and financial support were critical, Arishaba says. But the real capacity-building promise came from her interactions with other scholars. One of the most productive tools, she says, is a social learning platform (called Baobab, which is an African tree) that gives scholars instant connection with the wider network of scholars.

Most of them were also leading their own passion projects, not to mention keeping up on their studies. But all were eager to offer inspiration, ideas and support to the larger group. Often, what seemed like an insurmountable hurdle could be managed simply because “someone knows someone who knows someone”, Arishaba says. “I wouldn't say this is a one-person project. It’s different people chipping in ideas and solutions and working together as a community.”

Arishaba’s experiences have taught her a lot about leadership, which she says boils down to teamwork, including welcoming and respecting all contributions. “It helps you push forward and push through ... because it’s not all roses and flowers,” she says.

Social implications

Arishaba, who graduated this year with a bachelor degree in public health, says her academic experiences helped her better understand the broader public health and social implications.

For example, access to basic hygiene products can help minimise chances for infection and related reproductive diseases while maximising a girl’s options for the future. A 2016 study in Uganda, for example, estimates that more than 60% of girls miss between one and three days of school each month during their periods. That adds up to a loss of about 11% of each girl’s education.

Too many girls “get married, when they’re still young, to an older man”, she says.

Next year she plans to enrol in ASU’s masters programme in public health, where she plans to learn more about the health system in Uganda as she looks for ways to expand her scope.

Her commitment to public health was strengthened last year, when her mother, Annet, suffered a heart attack while running errands in Uganda. No one near her knew how to do CPR, and the hospital was about an hour away. By the time her mother was able to get medical care, “she was already gone”, Arishaba says. “She was the most important person in my life [and she died] because of poor health care.”

Now, Arishaba dreams of creating a more responsive health care clinic.

“I want to be a change-maker, and a leader for my country,” she says. “People are dying because of poor health care systems. I think we can do better.”