Calls for free sanitary pads to be provided for Zimbabwean young girls are growing at a time when they are still beyond the reach of many.
Sanitary pads are a very critical component for women and girls’ reproductive health requirements, but owing to their exorbitant cost, most are having to look for alternatives, some of which could have undesirable after-effects in the long run.
For too many young women, the products that mark “becoming a woman” are luxuries, not necessities. And getting your period means new expenses, days away from school and risking regular infections.
Sanitary products are vital for the health, well-being and full participation of women and girls across the globe. The United Nations and Human Rights Watch, for example, have both linked menstrual hygiene to human rights. Earlier this year, Jyoti Sanghera, chief of the UN Human Rights Office on Economic and Social Issues, called the stigma around menstrual hygiene “a violation of several human rights, most importantly the right to human dignity”.
When sanitary products are inaccessible or unaffordable, menstruation can mean missed school for girls (Unicef estimates 10 percent of African girls don’t attend school during their periods) and an increased dropout rate, missed work for women and repeated vaginal infections because of unsanitary menstrual products.
Rural women and girls are said to be the most affected to the extent that some of them go for as far as using leaves, cow dung, animal hides or rags as sanitary pads.
Rights advocates say the solution is simple: Give school-age girls free sanitary pads.
Kenya and South Africa already make it easier for impoverished and marginalised communities to access sanitary pads. Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta pledged to supply free pads to girls in school.
Sanitary pads have been tax-free there for more than 10 years. In South Africa, the department of education for the province of KwaZulu-Natal gives 3 000 schools free pads every month, with each girl in Grades Four to 12 getting a pack of 12.
Various civic organisations and Government bodies are now trying to do the same in Zimbabwe, devising initiatives to ensure that reaching puberty doesn’t condemn girls to miss school or drop out altogether.
The Rozaria Memorial Trust, based in Murewa, in rural Mashonaland East province, provides five schools with sanitary pads and education in menstrual hygiene. It also helps children pay for their school fees and uniforms.
The Real Open Opportunities for Transformation Support (ROOTS), a grassroots organisation that has been combating child marriages and gender-based violence in Zimbabwe, has embarked on a campaign to ensure the sustainable provision of sanitary pads for girls in rural areas.
ROOTS has stepped in to help give pads to schoolgirls in areas such as Mazowe, Bindura, Chivi, Zaka, Lupane and Harare. ROOTS programmes officer Sandra Muzama said girls needed pads in order to further their education.
“Having seen the period poverty that is inherent in our communities we saw the need to provide sanitary wear to bridge this gap. In our findings period poverty is a catalyst for girls failing to attain a good education as some will stay at home when on their period to avoid embarrassment in the event that they soil themselves.
Also, adolescents and young people engage in transactional sex for money to buy essentials such as pads. The sex is usually unprotected as they have limited negotiation power because of their vulnerability,” said Muzama.
While these efforts are commendable, keeping girls in school also requires Government to assist in giving pads.
Touching Lives Foundation co-ordinator Hope Mudangwe, said the reduction of taxes on sanitary wear products was not enough as they should be made free.
“We have been advocating for the Government to make pads free and what they have done is to reduce taxes on the importation of raw materials used to come up with sanitary products. But even though the taxes have been reduced, the sanitary products still come at a very high cost.
“And we are advocating as women and organisations dealing with menstrual health issues that we want these products to be given for free. If condoms are given for free in public spaces, why not give sanitary wear for free,” she said.
Last year in December, Government told our sister paper, The Sunday Mail, that learners in rural schools will start receiving free sanitary wear this year under a Government programme that is meant to assist children from disadvantaged families who are losing out on valuable learning time after failing to attend classes during their menstrual cycles.
Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education director of communications and advocacy, Taungana Ndoro, said the programme would commence once Treasury releases funds for procurement and distribution of the sanitary wear.
“We intend to roll out the programme for the whole year based on the budget and we expect to alleviate the challenge of sanitary wear within the education sector.
Our strategy of distribution is based on the equity principle, where we start with rural primary and secondary schools,” he said.