By Charity Ruzvidzo
Improving women’s health is essential in reducing poverty and fostering economic growth in Africa.
Sadly, most women and girls in Africa still fail to access menstrual pads due to high costs, especially those from rural areas.
The lack of access to menstrual pads is exposing women to various genital infections, as they are opting to use unhygienic methods such as tissues, rags, cow dung or even leaves.
Cognisant of this dire situation afflicting women, activists are now calling for African leaders to increase the accessibility of sanitary pads to women and girls in order to improve their health.
Director of Katswe Sistahood, an organisation that advocates for women empowerment, Talent Jumo, said sanitary pads must be offered to women free of charge.
“We recently held a demonstration in Harare in a bid to bring attention to the government on the importance of making sanitary pads affordable for girls. Sanitary pads must be free, like condoms and tissues. We have families that are surviving on a dollar a day, such families are not able to purchase the pads which also cost US$1,” said Jumo.
Jumo said lack of sanitary pads is compromising women’s reproductive health.
“The use of indigenous unsafe sanitary pads such as cow dung, leaves and pages from exercise books has a great impact on women’s gynaecological health. In some cases, girls have reported genital tract infections,” said Jumo. She said there is a need to demystify menstruation. “Girls at a tender age are taught not to talk about menstruation. This has limited girls and women from engaging with the right authorities to appeal for free sanitary pads. Some girls raised by fathers alone shy away from seeking assistance and they end up using unhygienic methods,” she said.
Voicing the same concerns, Arise Women Zimbabwe founder, Shamiso Gamble, said lack of sanitary pads for girls affects their education.
“For most girls, the menstruation period per month is five to four days. Without the necessary sanitary wear, a girl is forced not to attend school until the period is over. This robs a girl of an average of 15 days per school term,” she said.
Gamble said communities should play a role in advocating for free sanitary pads.
“We have more women than men in this country and it is important to safeguard their health by ensuring they can access sanitary pads. Churches, families and schools have to get involved in empowering the girl child. Menstruation is natural, girls should not be embarrassed or depressed about it,” she said.
In addition to absenteeism from school during the menstrual period, activists say there is cramping, the fear of soiling clothing, and ridicule from other students and unwanted attention from men.
Two companies that manufacture sanitary pads in Zimbabwe, namely Onsdale (Farai Pads) and Refreshing Sanitary Pads (Happy Sky Pads), are failing to get foreign currency to import raw materials for the production of the pads.
The raw materials are imported from South Africa and China.
Legislators in Zimbabwe, such as Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, have in the past pleaded with the Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa to consider scrapping import duty on menstrual cups as the sanitary crisis persists in Zimbabwe.
Menstrual cups are an alternative to sanitary pads and are considered economical over time, as the same cup can be used for close to 10 years. According to a 2015 report by World Bank Group titled “Preparing the Next Generation in Tanzania: Challenges and Opportunities in Education” adequate sanitation and menstrual hygiene management increase adolescent girls’ retention and participation in schools.
This indicates how sanitation challenges also affect girls in Tanzania.
Kenya has also recorded inadequate sanitary pads for women.
Zambia seems to be leading the way in taking affirmative action in the provision of free sanitary pads.
In its 2017 budget, Zambia included funds to provide free sanitary products in rural and semi-rural schools, and South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal education department in February last year began distributing free sanitary products to schools.
But such efforts are not enough. Activists are calling upon Heads of State to increase their efforts in safeguarding women’s health.
“More needs to be done to protect women and the girl child. Menstrual sanitation issues must be a top priority for all government leaders. There is need to also raise awareness and educate women not to stigmatise blood. The menstruation period needs to be celebrated,” said Gamble.
Besides lack of sanitary pads women and girls, Africa paints a sad picture of having 15 sates out of the 20 in the world with the highest rates of child marriages.
According to UNICEF, if the current trend continues, the number of child brides in Africa is expected to double by 2050.
Girls forced into early marriage are at greater risk of gender-based violence and early pregnancies. This compromises their education as well as their health.
Investing in girl’s education and health is important as it boosts their confidence, fosters economic growth and ensures they can contribute to global change.