Ufrieda Ho, Spotlight
Statistics about menstruation and girls’ missed school days in South Africa have been guesstimates at best, and range wildly – between two and seven million girls affected.
Numbers can be a distraction, though; whatever the numbers, in the end they
still speak to the massive challenge of ending period poverty, bringing dignity to more schoolgirls who are on their cycle, and shattering the stigma of and myths about menstruation.
For Sharon Gordon, CEO of Dignity Dreams, what struck her most in working with girls and schools in need has been a small reality that has little to do with startling numbers, but has been just as revealing.
Dignity Dreams is an NGO, started in 2013 with a mission to distribute free sanitary products to schoolgirls in need. Together with their various donors they distribute reusable cloth pads to schoolgirls who cannot afford them. In five years, the organisation has been able to distribute 67 000 packs of these reusable pads, to girls in South Africa and even to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“I knew that the school principals would probably report back about improved attendance at schools after the distribution of the pads – almost because it’s become the norm to say this.
“We welcome the positive feedback; but research shows the reality is that the problem is less about menstruating girls who can’t afford sanitary towels staying away from school, and more about girls who are forced to use unreliable homemade products not being able to concentrate in class, or take part in sports and other school activities,” says Gordon.
However, it was one comment in a report-back that really stood out for her: schools were noting savings in their plumbing bills.
“Plumbers were being called out less to schools to unblock toilets, because girls were no longer throwing disposable pads and homemade sanitary towels into them,” says Gordon.
Items that used to be flushed down toilets included everything from disposable sanitary towels to pads made of newspaper, rags, and socks filled with sand. With the reusable pads, the girls were taking soiled pads home to be washed, dried and reused.
For Gordon, it bought home sharply the impact of positive intervention.
Dignity Dreams has also teamed up with a women’s upliftment collective employed to make the cloth pads for them. The packs contain six pads that can last four years, and they are distributed to Grade 8 pupils. The packs cost R200 each, and donors can also add panties to the packs that are distributed.
“We have focused on cloth pads because they have proved to be the product most acceptable to the girls, and the most sustainable. We also only have to visit a school once a year to distribute to every new Grade 8 class, rather than making monthly deliveries,” Gordon says.
Importantly, she adds, each delivery is an opportunity for outreach and education. The sessions are used to dispel myths and superstitions about periods – nonsense such as that washing your hair when you’re menstruating is unhealthy, or that periods are a sign of contamination.
Gordon is also pushing for men and boys to be informed about menstruation, so that period-shaming can stop; and so that society can let go of its discomfort about talking about periods, and be part of the solution to period poverty.
“We still hear things on distribution days, from teachers and principals,” she says, “saying things like ‘It’s wonderful that you have these pads, girls – now, hide them away.’”
“Periods are a bodily function, like blowing your nose, or having a wee – that’s the message we must get across.”
VAT on menstruation
The one-percentage-point VAT increase announced in February has been bad news for many, especially those campaigning for zero VAT on sanitary products.
In November last year, national treasury announced that tax exemption on sanitary towels would be put on hold – despite lobbying by activists and some members of Parliament for over a year. Instead, treasury urged individual departments to reallocate budgets in order to find funds to support subsidies or free pad-distribution initiatives.
The pressure from activists – and even from some in Parliament – was a direct response to growing evidence that girls who cannot afford sanitary pads and are then forced to use makeshift pads are compromised, in their learning and school and sports activities. They are not able to concentrate as well, and some even miss school days entirely as a result.
The number of girls in South Africa affected may not be the routinely quoted seven million, but could still be as high as around 2.6 million girls, according to fact-checking organisation Africa Check. They also found that absenteeism as a result of not having sanitary products was also not as high as the figures used for attention-grabbing headlines.
In the same fact-checking exercise Africa Check published in August 2016, they highlighted former President Jacob Zuma’s promise in 2011 that government would provide sanitary pads to indigent girls and women.
In February last year, through its social enrichment programme, the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Department of Education became the first province to roll out a free sanitary pad programme, to around 2 950 quintile 1 to 4 schools.
One year on, information and updates on the success and sustainability of this programme – launched with a R50 million budget – are still to be disclosed by the KZN Department of Education. Spotlight has tried several times to access updates on the programme, but has not received an informative response.
The Menstrual Cup
“I never thought it would happen to me,” Nonhlanhla Phume (25) told
Spotlight. A few years ago, while menstruating, she noticed blood had leaked through and stained her pants while she was studying in a computer laboratory at Wits University.
“I was so embarrassed. I had to literally walk out with the chair I was sitting on, and take it to the bathroom and clean it. I was so self-conscious whenever I was menstruating after that,” she said.
But the worry around her menstrual period vanished after she started using a menstrual cup last year, given to her by the Maternal Adolescent and Child Health Research Unit as part of a DREAMS research project.
A menstrual cup is a small silicone cup-shaped device inserted into the vagina, which traps menstrual blood.
According to lead researcher Mags Beksinska the cup, which lasts five years, saves young women a significant amount of money. This is particularly relevant for poor school-going girls who have been reported to stay at home when menstruating, due to the unaffordability of sanitary products.
Beksinska said they are distributing 6 000 free cups to young women, primarily in all the institutions of higher education in three KwaZulu-Natal districts. Five hundred will be followed up for the study to find out what their sanitary challenges are, and what their experiences have been using the cup. School-going girls are not being targeted in this project because the provincial government provides sanitary assistance in schools; also, there were cultural concerns about virginity testing in relation to the use of the cup.
Phume, who is a project assistant for the menstrual cup study, said the product has not only saved her money, but also a lot of anxiety.
“Even though I had never even used a tampon before, I hardly notice the cup when it’s in. It never leaks, and I’m not stressed about that happening to me ever again.”