Period poverty: 7 million women and girls can’t afford sanitary products

Sanitary pads and tampons. (Natracare/Unsplash)

When Phumzile Mayiza, 33, started her menstrual cycle at 14, she was bewildered. Growing up in rural Kwa-Zulu Natal in kwaHlabisa, she was not exposed to information about what was happening to her body. 

“I felt very ashamed when my period started. It took me a while before I told anyone. Nothing was taught to us about it at school but my older sisters and other elders in my family made me understand that my period meant I was of child bearing age, that I would now risk getting pregnant if I became intimate with a boy.”

Raised by an unemployed single mother, the household income was limited. This meant the supply of sanitary pads was not a guarantee. During her period, she resorted to cutting up old clothes to create sanitary napkins. ““I had to do this for about six years until I got a job and was able to buy my own pads.”

She’s now a mother to a 16 year old, Mandisa, who started her period at 11. Although Phumzile works as a cashier at a supermarket, there are some months when she can’t afford to buy sanitary products for both her and her daughter.

Mandisa is then forced to rely on the provision of these items from her school, which receives sanitary products from donations and the Department of Women, Youth, and Persons with Disabilities. But the supply is inconsistent and girls are given just one pack per month. For many, especially those with a heavy flow, this isn’t sufficient.

The pads we get from the pad drive are helpful but they don’t stick properly on my underwear. The pad moves a lot as I move and I am scared to blot. Some of us also have a heavy period flow and the eight pack of pads is not enough for the days that we menstruate.


Free provision of sanitary pads

In October 2018, Tito Mboweni, who was the finance minister at the time, declared that beginning in April 2019, sanitary items would be zero-rated (not subject to VAT). However, the supply to schools is insufficient and runs out before the following quarterly roll-out of sanitary pads. Over 4 million learners received a box of disposable sanitary pads in 2022.

To fill the void, civil society has stepped in. Organisations like Qrate ZA, The Siyasizana Foundation, IAMFORHER, and the Cora Project, amongst many others, try to assist young girls and women through sanitary pad drives, but it’s still not enough to fill the gaping hole. Of the 22 million South African women and young girls who menstruate, 7.7 million (35%) don’t have the financial means to purchase sanitary products. And over 4 million women in schools, varsities and sport clinics miss education and training for an average of 5 days per month because of the lack of access to sanitary products.

Nokuzola Ndwandwe, menstrual health activist and founder of the Team Free Sanitary Pads movement, says that the interventions within the National Sanitary Dignity Implementation Framework to eradicate period poverty should be considered as temporary bridges, while the mission to legally address menstrual health rights continues. 

“It (VAT scrap) directly benefits those who can afford to buy sanitary pads in the first place, and keeps those who simply can’t afford sanitary pads in the same position,” she says.

The provision of sanitary products at schools is also unreliable, and places learners in what feels like a begging situation. “The pads finish quickly and then you have to ask again or use other things. It is uncomfortable”, says Mandisa.

Giving dignity to period poverty

Recognising this indignity, the Menstruation Foundation launched their first dispensing machine in the School of Hope in April 2021. Director of the Foundation, Marius Basson, says they fill the gap that other dignity pad drives leave open by the inconsistent provision of sanitary pads and the indiscreet act of receiving the pads from the school.

“The dispensing machine works with a token that a girl signs out at the beginning of the month and whenever she needs a pad, no one needs to know about it – she uses the token to get it in the girls bathroom or in the sick room, and gets three packets of pads with that token.”

Basson says that every machine is stocked with up to three months of sanitary pads to maintain sustainability in providing sanitary pads.  

The number of girls who benefitted grew from 200 in one month to almost 45 000 girls every month through this system. The Foundation currently has 98 machines up nationally across schools, and one at the University of Stellenbosch.

There’s a collaborative effort by civil society organisations, activists, legal centres and the presidency to draft menstrual health rights into law by the end of this year.

“There is so much more that can be done to address period poverty through a menstrual health rights legislation – implementing policy that boosts menstrual health, increasing access to sanitation and disposal facilities, and others. It will also open up support from the private sector to financing and procuring free sanitary pads in public spaces”, says Ndwande.

She says there’s a need to continue developing and drafting legislation that goes hand in hand with the Preferential Procurement Bill 2022. “This Bill provides a framework that provides women led businesses and entrepreneurs to take ownership of the menstrual health and hygiene economy. The importance of this is to provide women with the opportunity to provide menstrual health products and items for the benefit of young girls and women.”-Health-e News


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