By Dr Nontsikelelo Manzini-Matebula and Dr Andile Dube
The onset of menstruation means a new phase – and new vulnerabilities – in the lives of adolescents. Yet, many adolescent girls face not only physical changes and menstrual pain, but are also confronted with period poverty, stigma, harassment and social exclusion during menstruation. In addition, lack of access to menstrual hygiene products and accurate information are some of the major barriers depriving many young girls of their right to health, dignity and education.
On the 28th of May, we commemorated Menstrual Hygiene Day to highlight the importance of good menstrual hygiene management worldwide and to affirm that menstrual health is a fundamental health and human rights issue for women and girls worldwide. This year’s theme, “Making menstruation a normal fact of life by 2030,” reminded us that menstruation is a natural occurrence for most girls and women and should not be a cause for shame and stigma.
Commit to ending period poverty
The commemoration of this Day provides an opportunity for us to strengthen the commitment from governments, manufacturers and suppliers to ensure the safety of menstruators with the provision of quality and safe sanitary products that comply with safety norms and standards.
It also means encouraging policymakers to provide safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities for menstruators while supporting the Department of Basic Education (DBE) to provide and examine the impact of comprehensive sexual education for learners. Indeed, investing in safe water, sanitation and health facilities and sanitary products, as well as an increased awareness around the topic is key to making menstruation a normal fact of life for all girls.
Gender inequality, discriminatory social norms, cultural taboos, poverty and lack of basic services like toilets and sanitary products can all cause menstrual health and hygiene needs to go unmet. This has far-reaching consequences for millions as it restricts their mobility and personal choice, affects attendance in school and participation in community life and compromises their safety, causing additional stress and anxiety. It is also important to note that transgender men and non-binary persons face discrimination due to their gender identity, depriving them of access to the materials and facilities they need.
Among these interventions is a commitment made in October 2018 by the Minister of Finance to provide free sanitary products to female learners in non-fee-paying schools. This was followed by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme’s decision to allocate R275 per month to students for personal care. In February 2019, the Minister of Women launched the Sanitary Dignity Implementation Framework and the National Treasury made a commitment to support a national rollout of the sanitary dignity programme and scrap VAT on disposable sanitary towels and panty liners.
Later in 2019, the Sanitary Dignity Implementation Framework was approved by Cabinet to ensure that every indigent girl and woman has reasonable and easy access to free basic sanitary products. Through programmes such as the Sanitary Dignity programme led by the Department of Women, Youth and People with Disabilities as well as the DBE and DSD – supported by partners such as UNICEF and UNFPA – we can now work towards keeping girls in school and help make menstruation a normal fact of life by 2030.
2020 saw the development of Standards for reusable sanitary towels as well as the launch of the South African Coalition of Menstrual Health which provides a valuable platform to mobilise resources and advocate for menstrual health in the country. The funding allocated by the National Treasury cannot reach all learners, hence the Coalition is an opportunity for the private sector and development partners to contribute towards menstrual health programmes collectively.
A further development was the finalisation of the M&E framework for Sanitary Dignity Implementation Framework by the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities in 2022.
The sobering reality is that millions face stigma and are economically excluded due to the lack of access to menstrual health, education and sanitary products – in South Africa and globally. This annual commemoration is necessary to lobby all stakeholders to address the socio-economic factors that prevent women and girls from experiencing good menstrual health.
Menstrual Hygiene Day reminds us that the right interventions can fulfil the unmet demand for menstrual hygiene products while protecting dignity, building confidence, and strengthening sexual and reproductive health, particularly among adolescents.
Dr Nontsikelelo Manzini-Matebula is Programme Specialist: Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights and HIV/AIDS Linkages at UNFPA South Africa
Dr Andile Dube is Education Manager, Quality and System Strengthening, at UNICEF South Africa