The cost of womanhood


If you think that only rural students miss school each week because they cannot afford feminine hygiene products, think again.

You may see the faces of these girls, who live near you, and never know.

There are seven million schoolgirls in South Africa who don’t have access to sanitary pads.

They simply cannot afford them, according to research done by the Dignity Project.

And according to UNICEF, one in 10 African girls misses four days of school a month during their menstrual cycle. That’s 60 missed school days a year.

The untenable cost of sanitary products is one thing, the cost to the girls’ education is another. This is the very challenge faced by many girls at Masiphumelele High School, and several of them spoke about it on Friday April 15 after the Clicks Helping Hand Trust, together with Subz Pads and Panties and Project Dignity delivered close to 700 packs of washable, reusable sanitary pads and panties to them. The girls heard how to use and wash the pads, which are designed to last up to five years if cared for properly.

Clicks will be donating one percent of sales of all Clicks-branded sanitary products to this new community project, which aims to help 5 000 schoolgirls this year.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International Wits students are working on a campaign to make sanitary pads freely available on campus, for the entire university community, including workers. They want tax scrapped on women’s hygiene products, which they say should be officially reclassified as necessities.

A petition to this effect has been addressed to the vice chancellor Adam Habib, Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi and Minister of Women, Susan Shabangu.

Rhodes University has also shown its support for the initiative and has organised a sanitary pad drive.

This tax has been in place despite President Jacob Zuma’s promise, in 2011, to provide free sanitary pads for women and girls who cannot afford them. So, priced beyond their means, the products remain luxuries for many girls, who either skip school or are forced to use rags, paper and leaves to manage their menstruation.

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Lisa Adlem,from Project Dignity and Liat Beinart from Clicks spoke to the 700 girls, eliciting shy giggles at first, then later, more confident answers, and later when the gift bags were handed out, thunderous applause and screams.

The girls were thrilled to have a solution, and were not in the least bothered about having to wash the pads and reuse them.

Tantaswa Mnyamara, 13, said the product was a very good idea, and she was so happy to have the chance to try it.

Sarah Siwundla, 16, said she often could not afford pads. On those days, she has had to go to the office at school and ask if there are any available. “I’m real excited to use these, I can’t wait,” she said.

Thokozile Soxasne and Phila Maki, also 16, said that each of them had run out of sanitary products before, and that they simply couldn’t afford the products. Each said they had stayed home from school at some point, because of this.

Phuthuma Gcinalitshone, 19, Sibabalwe Nkquita, 19, Nikita Mhokotwana, 17 and Yondi Gxokonyeka, 19, were excited about the gift bags and not having to worry anymore about the availability of regular pads and their cost.

“This is a very good thing that happened here today, we are very happy,” said Yondi Gxokonyeka.

“I learned things today, I am grateful,” said Nikita Mhokotwana.

The older girls spoke freely about feminine concerns or worries they had, and they gave a resounding cheer when Ms Adlem told them that they were in charge of their bodies, and life plans, and said that attending (all of) school would set them up for better earning potential.

Sandiswa Putu said that all sanitary products should be cheaper and accessible for everybody and Sinelizini Rungayi and Asemahle Maxhwele agreed wholeheartedly.

Each drawstring bag given to the girls held two pairs of Subz Pantz, six washable pads, six sealable bags, and a wash care instruction card. While disposable sanitary pads take up to 500 years to disintegrate and are either sent to landfills or go through the sewers into the oceans and onto beaches, Subz are eco-friendly, re-usable sanitary pads which clip onto underwear and are re-usable.

Director of Project Dignity Sue Barnes says on the organisation’s website: “We give the girls their basic education they deserve. Their dignity is kept intact and we empower them to be the best they can. We grow their self-esteem by educating them on their bodies and sexual rights.”

Sherri Bell, spokeswoman for Fish Hoek High School said that during the unrest in Masiphumelele last year, several pupils from the area had been given shelter at the school. “While they were with us, we became aware of the difficulties faced by some of the girls there – they were willing to go without food, if they could only have sanitary products,” Ms Bell said.

“We are now looking into a collection of re-usable pads, but, in the interim, we already do a collection twice a year and offer those to schools in need. And we keep a supply of products in the office for any of our girls who is facing the same need.”