by Pamela Maringa

What is it going to take to make the government and society realise that the pricing of sanitary wear is a problem?

I recently visited my aunt in the township of Tembisa. On my visit I met Thoko, a 13 year old girl who lives in the neighbourhood with her grandmother and other younger siblings. Thoko shares her sad story of how her family lives from the little money her grandmother makes from selling vegetables on the street corner. She hardly owns decent underwear and so the idea of sanitary pads is not practical for her. She has to improvise with whatever they have – rags, towels, newspaper. This can often result in serious infections, which in turn has affected many women’s ability to reproduce. The decisions they make at this point in life, can have impact on their future health and fertility. It also denies them dignity, and affects the relationship they have with themselves and their bodies.

Thoko’s story is a reality for many girls. Even I can relate to her. Growing up, I wasn’t always able to afford sanitary pads because there were other things that were much more important than buying pads for one person. A price of a single packet of sanitary pads could amount to the same price as a 2,5kg, or even a 5kg, packet of maize meal. If there are two girls within a family, that’s two packets of maize meal. Sanitary pads seemed like a luxury in my family. My mom advised me to use reusable cloth pads like she has always used. The idea of washing them wasn’t always pleasant, but it was the only option. It was certainly better than missing school and it saved my mom lots of money.

Last year the Parliament’s Portfolio Committee instructed the Department of Women in the Presidency to ensure that free sanitary pads are available to women and school girls. It’s now a year later, and we haven’t seen the result of that order. In fact, the promise of the distribution of free sanitary towels to the needy, was first raised in the 2011 State of the Nation Address by the President. He announced that it was to be included in the Ten Point Plan on Health.

“Given our emphasis on women’s health, we will broaden the scope of reproductive health rights and provide services related to amongst others, contraception, sexually transmitted infections, teenage pregnancy and sanitary towels for the indigent (State of the Nation Address, President Jacob Zuma, 10 February 2011)

Feminine hygiene products are increasingly more expensive. Sanitation in many schools is very poor. Because of this, many underprivileged girls miss out on many school days each year. Amongst other things, it denies girls their constitutional right to education. The message is: because they menstruate, they don’t deserve the same education as boys.

To top this off, condoms are being handed out for free, while feminine hygiene products are still taxed by the government. Sex is a choice, menstruation is not.

Menstruation is not just a women problem, it also affects men. If a sister, mom or wife doesn’t have sanitary pads, they are unable to engage in their daily activities. Men should also help in providing the sanitary towels by buying some for the female members of their family.

The Department of Health should prioritise sanitary health as much as it does the availability of condoms. The price of sanitary pads should be treated as a public health emergency. Apart from the government, I would also call on the private sector and churches to play a role in donating pads. For those who are able to spend more, next time you buy sanitary towels, add an extra packet for a girl next door. A single packet of sanitary pads can make a difference in someone’s life. Reach out, and contribute towards a child’s future.

Without periods, humankind as we know it, would not exist. Let’s help make menstruation a less horrific experience for girls and help keep them in class. Remember it takes a village to raise a child.