HEATHER MOYO (not her real name) is an orphaned Form One student at a school in the high-density suburb of Mbare, Harare. She lives in the popular Jo’burg Lines with her nine-year-old sister and four-year-old brother and sells snacks to raise money for food. Luckily, her fees are paid through the Basic Education Assistance Module, which
explains why she is still in school.
For 25 days of each month, Heather is a happy teen who goes to Mbare Musika to sell her wares after school.
Her lifestyle changes during the other five days when she begins menstruating. She says the days are a nightmare for her.
“I don’t go to school, I rarely go out to sell my wares, my life literally stops yet I have to feed my siblings,” she told The Herald recently.
Heather is one of the many girls from poor households who cannot afford proper sanitary wear.
Each month, the girls, especially those from rural areas, struggle through their cycles as they cannot afford to buy sanitary pads.
The cheapest pack of 10 sanitary pads costs US$1 and the expensive brands go for up to US$10.
What makes the situation for rural girls worse is that menstruation issues are regarded as taboo in many communities. Also, society does not take sanitary wear issues seriously though they are of paramount importance to women’s reproductive health.
Society simply does not talk about the topic. Some girls are not allowed to cook meat, slaughter chickens when menstruating as they are regarded as “dirty”. Ditto when it comes to serving males food.
Even girls raised by well-to-do fathers find it difficult to ask for money to buy sanitary pads and end up using unhygienic forms of sanitary wear.
“We have many female Members of Parliament who should push Government to provide free sanitary pads to women and girls in rural areas. This is the most vulnerable group of people who go through hell during their menstrual cycle. Sanitary pads will bring sanity to the lives of these women,” said Mrs Charlene Gumbo of Mbare.
She said it is sad that in the absence of clean cloth, poor women also use the dirtiest rags during their monthly cycles, sometimes even nothing.
“Living with meagre resources, a clean cloth is usually the last priority. Reproductive health is an important but often ignored issue,” she added.
An assessment by a local non-governmental organization, Integrated Sustainable Livelihoods, shows that about 70 percent of girls in Forms 1 and 2 fail to attend school during their monthly periods because they do not use proper sanitary wear.
In an effort to promote menstrual hygiene among women and young girls from poor backgrounds, the organisation has been imparting skills in rural communities to make their own sanitary pads.
ISL project officer Risisteng Rukasha said as at June 30 last year, they had distributed 200 reusable sanitary pad machines in areas that include Binga, Mudzi, Mhondoro-Ngezi and Nyabira.
She said because of financial constraints, they have not been able to continue disbursing the machines.
Before their intervention, she said, some girls would use newspapers, tissues, rags and even cow dung as sanitary pads.
“We managed to change the lives of many girls in Binga. Menstruation is an issue they could not openly talk of. Young girls would fall pregnant because they did not know how to manage their reproductive health,” she said.
She added sanitary wear issues should be a Government priority.
“They should give out sanitary pads for free in schools. I wonder why some people are advocating for condoms in schools yet girls face a serious challenge of sanitary wear,” she added.
She also urged Government to approve a standard re-usable pad. The reusable sanitary pads can be used for up to five years.
“Our assessment shows that about 70 percent of the girls in Forms 1 and 2 fail to attend school for a few days every month because they do not have access to proper sanitary ware. School attendance registers show that many girls are absent at least for four days every month,” Rukasha said.
The challenges faced by women when it comes to sanitary wear are not confined to Zimbabwe alone as countries such as India face similar tests, an issue that came out at the just ended Women Deliver 3RD Conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
At the meeting over 4 500 global leaders, experts, philanthropists and development partners from 149 countries discussed issues that affect women’s health and top of the agenda was reproductive health.
The Women Deliver meeting was the largest global meeting of the decade focusing on the well-being of girls and women.
The conference kept on the agenda the discussion on investing in girls and women as a strategy to achieve the Millennium Development Goals which the UN wants realised by 2015 – now only two years away.
One of the exhibitors at the conference, GOONJ, said in some parts of Rajasthan, women use sand or rags during menses.
In Uttarakhand, Bihar and many other places women use ash as an absorbent. In Sunderbans (West Bengal), women use the same cloth for almost a year or two.
“Many women develop infections and have to get their uterus removed. There are cases like that of a woman using an old piece of blouse which had a hook and then she died of tetanus.
“The lack of appropriate and adequate sanitation facilities prevents adolescent girls from attending school, particularly when they are menstruating,” said GOONJ.
The Indians have been addressing this challenge by turning old cotton cloth into clean cloth sanitary napkins.
“We have been campaigning among urban masses especially women, to raise awareness and material for cloth napkins. Initiating discussion among women in the villages and slums of India, on the health and hygiene aspects of this taboo issue.
“We have also been giving training to various NGOs to start the production of cloth sanitary napkins at a local level and helping them understand the gravity of this subject and bring attention of larger world to the issue.”
They measure the cloth, wash, dry and iron it to make it moisture free for hygienic purposes.
Since menstruation issues are also taboo in India, they have been creating awareness on the subject through village level meetings and discussions
The GOONJ’s Sanitary Napkin programme is reaching slums and far-flung villages of India.
African leaders have been committed to ensure women enjoy basic reproductive health while some of the promises do not translate to action to benefit those at the bottom of the pyramid.
In their efforts to achieve the MDGs by 2015, African governments adopted a continental policy framework on sexual and reproductive health and rights to improve sexual and reproductive health as a contributor towards poverty reduction.
Health ministers from across the continent met in Gaborone, Botswana, in 2005 to draft a policy framework which was endorsed by heads of state and government in January 2006 as the Plan of Action on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, Maputo Plan of Action 2006.
The activities under the framework include integratiWhile there have been many calls to reduce the cost of sanitary wear or even make it free especially in rural areas, not much has been done.
Maybe interventions such as the reusable sanitary pads if taken up on a full scale are the solution.
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