Esther Birungi on Using Social Media to Advance Social Good

#360Mentor is a new series that picks up from where #40DayMentor stopped. In the first episode, Robert Kabushenga (RK) speaks to Esther Birungi (EB) on Using social media to advance social good.

RK: Welcome to #360mentor. You are our first guest in this new series. The first time I saw your handle, I read that you are the future Chief Justice and that caught my attention. But, before we get there, we want to know you.

EB: Thank you for giving me this opportunity. I still hold on to the dream. One day I will be.

RK: Tell us about yourself. Where were you born? Were you born in the first place?

EB: I was born in Kabale. But, my family moved to Kampala when I was in P2.

RK: Which part of Kampala did you move to?

EB: The first place we stayed was in Kamwokya. It was a two bedroomed house. We moved to Kampala as a family to have a new start. Everything was new. I did not know English. They made me repeat P1.  In just a year, I was named the best English speaker.   After that I went to Kitante Primary School, then I went to Mengo SS for my entire secondary education and then later joined Uganda Christian University – Mukono to pursue law. I am still a student there.

RK: Do you see yourself as a hustler?

EB: Yes. I have come from far.

RK: What are those little experiences that you have had to?

EB: I struggled with English.

RK: Are there things you had to do as a hustle?

EB: When it comes to education and fees, my parents were always there. I could be chased home for fees but it’s my parents who paid it.

RK: At what point did you begin the hustle culture?

EB:  I grew up in a strict Christian home. It was when I joined hostel that I realised that I needed to do some things for myself. One of our lecturers told us to join social media.

RK: What was the argument the lecturer presented for you to join social media?

EB: We were talking about media and tech and he advised that the world was going growing and leaning more towards tech. We had to make use of simple tools like social media.

RK: What was your point of entry? Where did you start and what were you looking for there?

EB: I began with Facebook. I wanted to have a good time. I wanted this good thing that everyone else was talking about.

RK: When did you join twitter?

EB: In 2019. A friend forced me to join it. Twitter was known for politicians and old people.   I was speaking from an ignorant point of view. She downloaded and opened the account for me.

RK: What paved the way?

EB: At that time, people were harsh. I remember I made a tweet that got people attacking me. I wanted to leave the app ASAP. But I decided to stay. Overtime, people started following me because of the content I was sharing.  

RK: Let me take you back, have you always been interested in social causes? Do you remember the first time you reached out to me and why?

EB: I was looking for aid for students who were stuck in hostels. We also thought we would be home for like two weeks during the first lockdown. About 50% of the students did not take it seriously. We were sent home on Friday and exams were to begin on Monday. Students from faraway places decided to stay. After it had sunk in, the students called me for help. I did not know what to do. But I had seen you were on the Covid task force. I asked someone to help me with your contact and when I called you helped me.

RK: You’ve had a big issue you have been pushing, can you talk about it?

EB: I started the Birungi Foundation.

RK: What was the main reason behind the foundation?

EB: It was the issue of menstrual hygiene. Together with my friends, we wondered where girls were getting their sanitary towels during lockdown. Sanitary towels cost UGX 3,500. It may look like a small amount but it means a lot to girls and in most families that is a big amount to be spent on pads. There were girls we knew needed help but we were limited because of the lockdown. I turned to my social media following and I started talking about the problem. I asked people to help.

RK: What did you do with the appeal?

EB: We could not move, so we turned to social media and people donated. The first time we raised UGX 1 million. I was blown away. We run a campaign called ‘pad through covid’

RK: What did you do with the money?

EB: We reached out to three districts Laku, Kamuli and Kaliro, we targeted 50 girls in each of the districts in eastern Uganda. At that time, we bought disposable ones.

RK: After the first covid, what happened?

EB: We gave a public account to the people who gave us money.

RK: What has happened since?

EB: We turned to reusable pads. We contracted a certain group of women who were making them and we contracted them to make them for us, the donations were growing.

RK: Do you know the quantities have you been able to put together?

EB: For every trip, we have been giving out 150 reusable towels.

RK: During your journey and interactions, what stories are the girls saying?

EB: It’s really sad. It has come to a point where girls exchange sexual favours to be able to get money for pads. There are cases of early pregnancies, rape, some have contracted HIV. We have met girls as young as 12 years pregnant. More like a baby carrying a baby.

RK: When you went around, what did you find?

EB: Issues to do with menstruation have caused many girls to drop out of school. The dropout rates have increased because of the stigma and shame about menstruation. They feel so uncomfortable. So they opt to stay home. Some girls have had to cut the mattress sponges, some use leaves to be able to absorb the blood because they cannot afford these sanitary towels. Some parents have even asked the girls to drop out of school. We have also seen teenage pregnancies. Girls are engaging in sex for pads. NBS TV run a news series on this. At the end of the day you have babies carrying babies.

RK: If you woke up with a million dollars, what would you do?

EB: I would put sanitary towel distribution centres in all schools around Uganda even in Central Uganda where we assume everything is okay. School going girls would feel safer. The bigger dream is that sanitary towels are free and affordable to girls to all girls.

RK: I guess it would be the same if you became the Chief Justice.

EB: The law works differently. It is a process. However, the president made a promise. I do not know where that ended. I believe it is something that can be done and is achievable.

Comrade Otoa: It is amazing what someone can do with the internet. She is using her social media to go the extra mile to do more. What drives you, Esther?

EB: Passion. My heart feels for the people who cannot afford simple things. Seeing young girls rise up and do more and better for themselves, drives me.

Mary Opolot: It is a huge problem, for the communities you have been to, what is the main factor that stops girls from affording the pads?

EB: The biggest is poverty. Some people in the city see UGX 3,500 as something small. So many people cannot afford things as simple as sugar. People are really poor. Even those that engage in agriculture, they do not have the interest to help out. Girls have been ignored by those that were even supposed to help them.

Buyinza Timothy: How would you help to bring boys on board to be of help?

EB: I must confess at the start of the project we had side-lined the boys but we were advised. So now when we go to school we talk to boys as well. We tell them what to do when they see a girl bleeding. We do the same in communities. We want them to know that menstruation is normal and they should come through to help their sisters’ hands. We also have men on our team. In fact, I have more men than women. That’s what we have done so far. We are welcome to more ideas.

Eve Zalwango: What are you looking for as a sustainable part of the project?

EB: At the end of the day this is not sustainable. For now, we are aiming at teaching the girls to make the reusable pads. We hope by January; we kick off this project. We will need help from funders. It’s something we are working on.  We are looking for sewing machines when she can learn to make for themselves but also be able to be an income stream for them.

Esther Namitala: How do you choose your beneficiaries? 2) What is the reception like?

EB: We have a research team that identifies these places. Media also helps us a lot. I have seen Canary Mugume who has done the stories around pads for her on NBS.

2) We usually go through the LCs. We have different coordinators who get us through the authorities we have to go through. Fortunately, we have been welcomed wherever we have gone.

Sandor Lyle: To what end, how can we help? For example, have we done enough research to know which part of Uganda has suffered most? 2) How long do reusable pads go for?

EB: Each reusable pad lasts for 6 months. Each girl has 3 so that they can change them. After 6 months, we send them more pads.

Lora Katashya: There is a lot of stigma against pads, there is a challenge of reusable pads; you have to dry them from outside. In the long run, the menstrual cups last longer, it is expensive but better. Have you thought about them?

EB: We do demonstrations to show how they can keep the reusable and hang them out. We cannot do anything about stigma. The menstrual cup needs to do a lot of convincing. The reception is quite low. They are also delicate for the young girls.

Mugume France: There is politics in everything, how are you avoiding the politics?

EB: We are non-partisan. This is a girls’ issue. You cannot politicise it.

China Viola: Uganda is a 3rd world country, you cannot compare the girls in the rural with those in urban centre, why did you have to focus on sanitary pads?

EB: Menstruation does not stop. It is not like giving out pads is all we do. The organisation focuses on education as well. We do not have the funds to do everything we want to do. For example, we are planning on giving school going children notes. But we just do not have the funds to do it all at once.

RK: Your last remarks?

EB: We are going to Kasese this month. I request you to contribute to the cause. Give whatever you can.  With UGX 10,000, you will help us buy 3 pads.

RK: Thank you for making time to share your experiences with us.

EB: Thank you for hosting me.

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