Feature: ‘Period poverty: A violation of women’s rights’

Menstrual accessories poverty

ACCORDING to the World Bank, as many as 500 million people across the globe lack access to basic menstrual products and hygienic bathroom facilities for use during their menstrual cycles.

In Zimbabwe, menstrual accessories poverty or period poverty remains a reality among many women and girls despite the guarantee of equal dignity promised by the Constitution’s Section 80, which states: “Every woman has full and equal dignity of the person with men which includes equal opportunities in political, economic and social activities."

According to a survey conducted by SNV Zimbabwe, “about 62% of girls miss school during their periods” and the largest number of the girls live in marginalised areas where sanitary ware is deemed a luxury.

Period poverty, which is the lack of access to menstrual and sanitary supplies, menstrual hygiene education and waste management, has created discriminatory social taboos and gender stereotypes that stigmatise menstruation as dirty, resulting in many girls experiencing menstruation with shame and failing to access the material needed to safely manage their menstrual health.

Martha Gomwe, one of the faces of the sanitary pad sister campaign reaching out to the less privileged rural women and girls and distributing sanitary ware, is among some of the people passionately raising awareness  surrounding  menstrual  health and the rising need to end period poverty in Zimbabwe.

“I want to raise awareness surrounding menstrual health and the need to end period poverty mostly in remote areas or rural areas where the girl child can be mostly affected in accessing sanitary  ware because of the prevailing  living  conditions  there,” said Gomwe.

“Well I grew up in rural areas with my sisters and my grandparents and having  access to the sanitary ware was a bit challenging  to us and we had to use rags monthly and we would  make sure to wash them.

“The greatest challenge was the lack of comfort that came with wearing zvijira (rags), but because there was no one to assist us with proper sanitary ware due to poverty in the rural areas we grew up in, we had to adjust to that fact.”

Gomwe pointed out that monthly this affected their learning and eventually affected her grades at school.

“This obviously affected our grades at school because when one of us was on their periods we had to skip classes and stay at home. We were afraid that people would laugh at us after spoiling our school uniforms and it affected one's self esteem.”

Women and girl child rights defender, Linda Masarira said many girls in Zimbabwe were at risk of developing infections and suffering the embarrassment of leakages and discomfort during their menstrual cycles.

“With period poverty comes a plethora of other problems, including period shaming and bullying. When young girls and women resort to using rags and other unsustainable solutions with little absorbency, leakages occur and stain the young girls clothing or school uniform; girls are then embarrassed and fear being around certain family members and peers.” she said.

“Our government should form a task force whose aim is to end period poverty in Zimbabwe by bringing together charities, manufacturers and the retail sector. Alternatively, 1% of all the tax collected can be channelled to buy sanitary ware for Zimbabwean women”

“All the male leaders should take the issue of sanitary ware seriously because it is the issue that is affecting that is affecting millions of young women, girls and elderly women as well and we need to make sure that women's dignity is preserved at all time,” said Masarira.

She added: “Women don't choose to menstruate because it is within their nature; men choose to have sex for pleasure and the government provides free condoms. The government should provide free sanitary ware to all women the way they provide condoms for free as giving birth is also national duty.

“To end period poverty, it is important for women in Zimbabwe to sincerely unite and work towards ending period poverty. Advocacy work towards free sanitary ware for all should continue unabated.”

Ekenia Chifamba from Shamwari YeMwanasikana said the rights and dignity of young girls and women living in marginalised communities are being violated because they cannot afford sanitary ware, resulting in them using such rudimentary alternatives within their reach as cow dung which are harmful to health.

“Maintaining good hygiene is hard because of the lack of soap and clean water. They do not have means to reduce period pain thus they miss school and their day-to-day activities are interrupted,” said Chifamba.

Some of the girls develop mental health issues due to stigma and other related challenges, which eventually affects their education, she added.

Many women cannot afford menstrual health products to meet their monthly needs, and this may have an impact on their mental wellbeing. Improved access to affordable menstrual products is needed to counter mental health issues related to period poverty.

To end period poverty and stigma she suggested that there be “awareness campaigns to erase the myths surrounding periods and sensitisation of the communities to support the girl-child”.

“Advocacy and lobbying among community leaders is crucial because they are influential in decision-making processes from grassroots level. There is need to adopt low-cost measures to ensure sanitary pads are easily accessible.

"There is need to conduct male engagements campaigns for the male counterparts to fully understand the plight the girl child is experiencing; and government must fulfil its promise to provide sanitary ware in rural schools because so far only one province has benefited."

On the issue Masarira said: "A couple of years back Parliament actually agreed to school children being given sanitary ware by government and we had Mtuli Ncube actually allocating a budget for that, but sadly we had reports late last year that the monies had been diverted for something else and young girls were not actually receiving those sanitary ware for free.”

Parliament has also lobbied for free duty on sanitary ware and distribution in schools and affordable pricing of sanitary pads, but it appears the efforts have come to naught.

Chairperson of the Parliament women’s caucus, Goodluck Kwaramba said: “As a caucus we are lobbying for gender responsive budgets so that women's issues are streamlined and lobbied for gender focal persons in all ministries. We have problems, however, because the Finance ministry is led by men who might not care about women's plight, but we keep pushing. In schools we have comprehensive sexual education to cater for girls' needs, also distribution of pads in schools is playing a pivotal role”

The comprehensive sexuality education programme covers counselling and teaching of cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality. It enables children and young people to make informed decisions and to protect their health, well-being, rights and dignity while tackling such issues as period stigma.

Follow Christine on Twitter @Ruten3Christine

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