by Paulina French

Allow me to be blunt. As a woman, having a period is not the best time of the month. I manage because I am still able to retain my dignity.

This is not true for all women. Many young women do not have the resources and access I have. Many families cannot afford sanitary products. This is not a choice that women make, whether you have the resources or not, you will still have a period.

Let’s look at this in practical terms: With the recent increase in VAT from 14% to 15%, a packet of cheaper sanitary pads (10 in a packet) will increase from R17.99 to R18.15. Not much for some, but for poor families the difference is substantial.

It is not only the financial implications, but the impact that this has on the future of the girl child. Girls are told that having their period is not a hindrance and that they are able to carry on with their daily life. But this is only true if you have the resources. Girls are told that they can achieve what they like and can compete with boys equally. This is not possible when, for one week a month, they are forced to either stay away from school, or face the indignity of their peers knowing that “it’s that time of the month.” The recent disturbing incident at Topbet in Germiston, where a menstruating woman was publicly humiliated, reveals the attitude our society has towards women and their dignity.

In 2004 Kenya became the first country in the world to abolish tampon tax. It also ended import duties on sanitary pads in 2011. In South Africa sanitary products are classified as luxury goods and are subject to import duties, pushing up the price for the consumer.

There are a number of zero rated products in South Africa such as bread, milk and maize. These are considered to be basic requirements and the consumer, therefore, pays no VAT on these. But we continue to be heavily taxed on a product that is considered to be a necessity for women and girls’ lives and dignity.

The South African Bill of Rights specifically addresses the right to human dignity and says that “everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.” It goes on to say that “everyone has the right to bodily and psychological integrity, which includes the right to security and control over their body.”

The rights of women and girls are not being upheld because of the inability of our policy makers and government to realise this. I have not heard our Minister for Women, either past or present, articulate any plan that is looking at addressing this issue which impacts on the mental and physical health of women. In the same vein, I have not heard many men in society or in government take a stand on this matter either.

In this past week we celebrated International Women’s Day. If we are going to take such days seriously then we need to respond to what women need. Ensuring that all women have a dignified period is one such important response.