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From Rags to Pads: A Call for Free Sanitary Products in South Africa

Women who can’t afford sanitary pads in South Africa use scraps of cloth or even leaves during menstruation, and are thus at significant risk of infection. One NGO has been handing out free reusable sanitary towels and says the government should follow suit.

Written by Rumbi Chakamba Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Without access to sanitary pads, girls and women in South Africa's disadvantaged areas use things like rags, old T-shirts and even leaves during their periods, putting them at greater risk of infection and other health problems. AFP/Mujahid Safodien

For over a decade, the South African government has been handing out free condoms in an attempt to slow the spread of HIV in the country. With condom use on the decline, the government this year announced it was switching to a new brand of free condoms – flavored ones – in the hope of encouraging people to start using them again. But what the government saw as a way to encourage safer sex, women’s rights activists saw as another broken promise. In 2011, the government had pledged to provide free sanitary pads to girls in disadvantaged areas – a promise that still hasn’t been fulfilled. The money the government had spent improving condoms, say activists, should have gone into getting pads to girls who need them.

Under the slogan “Sex is a choice and menstruation is not,” many women’s rights advocates have taken to social media, suggesting the government is placing sexual needs above basic health provisions for women. Lack of access to sanitary products is linked to various health problems and even missed education, as girls are forced to stay home from school whenever they get their periods.

Stepping into the gap left by the government, NGO Dignity Dreams makes reusable sanitary pads and distributes them to girls who normally can’t afford to buy pads. Founded three years ago, the organization also distributes age-appropriate information on menstrual health in booklets that include a menstrual calendar and tracker.

Women & Girls Hub spoke with Sharon Gordon, chief operations officer for Dignity Dreams, about the need to end taboos surrounding menstruation and to educate girls about what getting their period means for their bodies.

Women & Girls Hub: You’ve been campaigning for menstruation to be an everyday topic of conversation. Why?

Sharon Gordon: We have got to start talking about menstrual hygiene, menstruation and puberty as a normal part of life. It’s not something that is shameful or dirty or something that should be hidden. It is a joyful time for girls entering into a new phase in their lives. We must make sure they understand what is happening to them and that they understand the consequences of these changes. Very few girls have this knowledge, they are simply told, “Now you have to stay away from boys.” But they do not understand what that means. They don’t understand fertility, they don’t understand the fact that they can get pregnant. We hand out free sanitary products, but it is not just about pads. There is a huge education drive behind our program. It’s about providing people with knowledge, because knowledge is power.

Women & Girls Hub: You introduced reusable sanitary pads to disadvantaged communities. How do they work?

Gordon: Our products are approved by the South African Bureau of Standards for their absorbency and can be washed after each use. They can also be used for up to three years.

If we give someone a packet of ordinary pads today, what will they use the next month? With the washable ones, they have something that will change their lives for the next three years.

Women & Girls Hub: Many women can’t afford to buy normal sanitary pads. What alternatives do they have?

Gordon: Mostly people use rags, bits of old T-shirts and clothes. But you also find people using leaves and old socks as well.

Women & Girls Hub: Are there any health risks associated with using those things?

Gordon: Thrush [yeast infection] is a huge problem and vaginal infections are also a huge problem. These infections end up being a bigger problem than not having the pads to begin with.

Women & Girls Hub: How does a lack of sanitary towels affect girls in terms of school and other activities?

Gordon: There is a myth that girls in the country miss school continuously because of their periods; this has not really been our experience. Our experience has been that they will go to school because they want the education, but they won’t participate in certain activities while they are having their period. So they are not getting the full educational experience.

It is, however, not like that in the rest of Africa. We know that in places like Morocco, Liberia, Libya and Sudan girls actually don’t go to school while having their period. As a result, they drop out and do not finish their high school education

Women & Girls Hub: Should the government be providing free sanitary towels?

Gordon: Yes, because if you change the life of one girl you change an entire community. I do believe that government should be responsible for this, but realistically I don’t think we are anywhere near to that happening. Because it’s a women’s issue. I do think women’s issues are still not important enough to our government.

Women & Girls Hub: What is your take on the condoms versus pads debate?

Gordon: I don’t think that it’s an either-or situation, I think it should be both. I think condoms are an incredibly important part of our community’s health in terms of STDs, unwanted pregnancies and HIV/AIDS. AIDS has killed off so many people in our communities, the government has given this issue priority.

A girl not having a sanitary towel does not kill anybody, it just makes her life uncomfortable. But that is important to deal with, too. If you want a healthy community, both need to be distributed.

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