Girls and women menstruate every month for about 38 years (from an average age of 13 until they are 51) in their lifetime. This natural biological process has a very significant impact on girls and women and determines their socioeconomic fate. The 38 years of menstruation affects girls and women's decision to show up, participate in, and focus on their education and work. You see; women and girls need different menstrual products, a conducive environment and dignified treatment in order to manage their periods in a healthy, dignified and sustainable manner.
When we talk about period poverty, many rush to think about it as the lack of sanitary pads only, but there is more to it as you shall realize. According to Sanitary Aid Zimbabwe, period poverty is the inability by girls and women to access (1) adequate menstrual products, (2) a conducive environment and (3) dignified treatment in order for them to manage their periods in a manner that fosters human and sustainable development. This definition underscores the fact that period poverty is not just about lack of sanitary pads; it is about the lack of everything needed to manage periods. Some of the requirements are monetary and others are non-monetary, as we shall see. We will take a look at eight key menstrual requirements for girls and women to manage their periods in a manner that is dignified, healthy and sustainable.
First and foremost, they need pairs of clean underwear. The underwear is very important to menstruators as it holds the pad and keeps it in position. While this might sound basic, many homeless girls and women, rural girls and refugees do not have underwear.
Pain relievers are another requirement. Some girls experience painful menstrual cramps and need pain relievers, such as ibuprofen, to ease the pain. In Zimbabwe, some pharmacies are now selling these pain relievers in foreign currency. Some homeless girls often resort to sniffing glue to intoxicate themselves and escape period pain when menstruating. Most of those who practise this risky behavior are now addicted.
Water is another very important requirement when menstruating. Girls and women need to wash their hands before and after changing their sanitary towels. Not doing so puts them at the risk of getting yeast infections, bacteria, Hepatitis B and other health risks. They also need water to bath, wash their reusable pads/cloths or menstrual cups. But there are a lot of schools with no water facilities, especially in rural areas. According to UN Zimbabwe, only 49.4 per cent of water points across the country are fully functional, with urban areas continuing to suffer from intermittent water supply of an average of 12 hours per day. Let's not forget that water is a basic right under Section 77(a) of the constitution.
Women and girls also need female friendly toilets. However, most toilets in public places, workplaces, schools and churches do not meet the basic requirements for menstruating women. Some toilet cubicles have no doors and there is no privacy. Others have no sanitary bins, forcing women to flash used pads or throw them on the floor. Some 65% of girls dispose used sanitary wear in latrine holes, according to SNV Zimbabwe. Incorrectly disposed sanitary pads pollute the environment and cause blockages as well. It is also important to note that a sanitary pad takes up to 800 years to decompose. We have also observed from our surveys that most public toilets have no hooks for keeping clothes and belongings off the floor and others are inaccessible by girls and women with disabilities. Another issue of particular concern is that some public toilets are closed early, while women are still going about their business, especially female vendors in town. Yet, Sustainable Development Goal 6 calls for universal access to sanitation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations.
I deliberately chose to mention sanitary wear in between, to show that it is not the only menstrual requirement. Sanitary wear is needed to manage the flow of blood in a healthy, dignified and sustainable manner. It can be in the form of sanitary pads, tampons, menstrual cups, period panties, adult pampers and other means. However, 72% of menstruating school girls do not use sanitary pads because they do not afford them, according to a study by SNV Zimbabwe. The study also established that 62% of school girls in Zimbabwe miss school every month due to lack of sanitary wear, depriving them their right to equal education. Some 45% of girls in Zimbabwe reported using old cloths and rags, 29% cotton wool, and 3% newspaper and leaves, according to SNV Zimbabwe.
As many girls and women use unhygienic rags, cardboard, newspapers, tissues, socks, leaves, and other unsanitary means to try and manage their flows, this exposes them to health risks such as urinary and reproductive tract infections, as well as bruises and discomfort. Their concentration at school is also affected as they will be worried that they might leak and mess the uniform or school chair and be laughed at (period shaming).
Soap is also needed to clean reusable sanitary wear, wash underwear, to wash hands or when bathing. Further, girls and women also need education about menstrual hygiene, how to use different sanitary products, how to dispose used pads, how to count their days, how to talk about periods confidently, and generally how to be in control of their periods. According to SNV Zimbabwe, 52% of girls surveyed said schools did not offer specific lessons on menstrual hygiene management.
Lastly, women and girls also need a conducive environment; that is, an environment that is free from bullying and period shaming. In Zimbabwe 54% of girls had experienced mocking or stigmatisation, 26% reported isolation and 13% said that boys call them names during menstruation, according to SNV Zimbabwe.The above indicators partly explain why women are always left behind. It is because they are not empowered from a young age, but are punished for being female. People should realize that period poverty is a human rights issue as it impacts the right to education, health and dignity. A survey conducted by Always UK established that women who have experienced period poverty are more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression, struggle to pay their bills and have unfulfilling love lives.
It is saddening to note that incidences of period poverty are worsening as the country's socioeconomic status is under threat. According to the United Nations, nearly 5.3 million people in Zimbabwe are estimated to be in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and protection; including 2.9 million who are severely food insecure. How can they afford menstrual products when they can't even afford food? Zimbabwe's inflation has risen from an average of -0.2 percent in 2014 to a ten-year high of 56,90% in January 2019. The cost of living also rose substantially, with the monthly consumer basket for a family of six rising to $842 in January 2019 from $591 in January 2018, while incomes have remained unchanged. It is saddening to note that the consumer basket does not even include sanitary wear; implying that it is not treated like a basic necessity.
I will also try to review interventions by different stakeholders to end period poverty in the country and make recommendations. So, in the 2019 National Budget, government scrapped the 15% VAT and 15-20% customs duty on imported sanitary wear, "to provide cushion to underprivileged girls and women".
However this was not achieved due to: continued foreign currency shortages, increased forex premiums on the black market after budget announcement, increase in the price of fuel by more than 150% among other costs. What should be noted is that "underprivileged girls and women" are failing to afford a decent meal, and they can never afford sanitary wear unless they are provided for free. Free provision is the only cushion for the underprivileged such as homeless girls, refugees, rural girls, female prisoners and others.
As Sanitary Aid Zimbabwe, we are therefore calling on government to come up with a corrective policy position to reduce the price of sanitary products. For starters, it should consider putting a subsidy on all sanitary products and bear a portion of the price to increase accessibility. Local sanitary wear producers are also not prioritized for foreign currency allocations and government should move in and provide them with adequate foreign currency to import raw materials and to recapitalize. More than 70% of raw materials needed to manufacture sanitary pads locally are imported and they attract duty ranging from 5 – 10%. Key raw materials that are imported include pulp, filler, chemical compounds that absorb fluids, top and bottom covers of pads among others. Because of foreign currency challenges, three local manufacturers of sanitary wear have closed shop, to only remain with two that are struggling to meet demand.
On the other hand, government is currently pushing an Education Amendment Bill whose purpose is to amend the current Education Act, to align it with constitutional provisions. While the Bill proposes a Basic Education Fund to fund infrastructure and payment of fees for those who cannot genuinely afford; as Sanitary Aid Zimbabwe, we also call on government to ensure that the Fund also caters for free provision of sustainable sanitary wear. By sustainable sanitary wear, we mean reusable pads that can last for several years. Other countries such as Kenya, South Africa, Scotland, South Korea among others already provide free sanitary wear to school girls. Further, while the Bill also proposes the appointment of sexual and reproductive health personnel in schools, we propose Sanitary Aid Zimbabwe also calls for existing teachers to be trained to do this task, and to include this as part of the curriculum for teachers' colleges. Menstrual health should be also taught as a compulsory topic for learners, covering areas such as taboos, stigma, menstrual hygiene, anti-bullying, among others.
We also noticed that the Bill is proposing basic State-funded education for learners up to Grade7. Again, as Sanitary Aid Zimbabwe, we encourage government to consider basic State-funded education up to Form 4 for rural girls. These normally face more challenges in secondary school, as they start menstruating, than in primary school.
The United Nations recently launched a $234 million Flash Appeal for humanitarian support for Zimbabwe, of which $12,7 million will go towards water, sanitation and hygiene programmes targeting 393,000 people. One of the priority areas of the sanitation and hygiene programme is distribution of WASH hygiene kits. It is our hope as Sanitary Aid Zimbabwe that reusable sanitary pads will be part of the hygiene kits and that the small groups of women that are locally producing these sanitary pads will be engaged to produce them as well as train local communities to make their own sanitation needs such as soap, sanitary pads, and other detergents. Another $3,2 million programme under the Flash Appeal targets refugees and some of the priority actions are construction of toilets and procurement of soap and sanitary wear. Again, we call upon the programme implementers to also work with small local producers of sustainable sanitary wear.
The UK government yesterday also launched a campaign to end period poverty worldwide by 2030, and has initially committed $2,6 million to help organisations in the world that are already working to stamp out period poverty. We continue to monitor how this will progress, although we call for more funding to go with the commitment
Each one of us, male and female, has a role to play in ending period poverty. Let us break the silence by openly talking about periods, and break all the stigma and taboos. Men and boys should be part of these important conversations. You can also play a role by donate menstrual products to those in need or volunteer with organisations fighting to end period poverty. Further, you can also campaign for change to ensure that government has proper policies in place to end period poverty, while also raising awareness of the issue of period poverty.
If you feel as strongly as we do about reaching out to underprivileged girls to unlock their full potential, then kindly support our initiative any way you can. Together, we can be the very reason why disadvantaged girls stay healthier and have a brighter future, and why period poverty can be made history.
Theresa Nyava is the founder and executive director of Sanitary Aid Zimbabwe, a charity organization that is empowering underprivileged girls and women in Zimbabwe to live healthy, sustainable and dignified lives by providing them with free menstrual products and period hygiene education. To support our work, contact us on +263771404853 or donate using our Ecocash merchant code 267259.
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