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Free Sanitary Pads for the Poor!

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In South Africa as in many other societies, inequalities between men and women are questioned in virtually every sphere – at work, in the home, and in public affairs. Despite public discourse, gender gaps and inequalities persist, even in the face of startling social and economic transformations and concerted efforts by government and civil society to challenge women’s subordination.

One area where women, specifically those from low-income families, suffer disproportionately is access to sanitary pads, something which in 2017, should be a basic human right.

In 2011, President Jacob Zuma noted the following in his State of the Nation Address, “Given our emphasis on women’s health, we will broaden the scope of reproductive health rights, and provide services related to amongst others, contraception, sexually transmitted infections, teenage pregnancy and sanitary towels for the indigent.”

While this statement served as a turning point in political discourse on the topic of access to sanitary products, very little concrete action has taken place by government through formalized long-term programmes which places emphasis on women's health, specifically sanitary products.

It is evident that a macro-level understanding of the challenges encountered by women (specifically young girls) in post-pubescent stage exists, however, the linkage to school attendance and the ripple effect on the development of a community as a whole is poorly understood. As such academic research on the influence of puberty and menstruation on girls’s school attendance is scarce.

Nevertheless, menstruation and poor sanitary product access, are seen as possible causes of schoolgirl absenteeism. This has attracted attention from the media, civil society and NGOs alike, as key development challenges in impoverished areas are highlighted.

While media coverage focusses excessively on school girls, and rightly so, often forgetten is the lived reality of ordinarly black women in both townships and rural areas whose sole focus as mothers and often single-parents, is the well being of their children. For these families who depend solely on child support grants, the luxury of sanitary pads which can cost up to R50 depending on the length of the period, is abandoned.

As such, Women’s Rights Groups and Human Rights activists across the country have called for the provision of free sanitary pads to women and girls who can not afford it.

Furthermore, emphasising poor sanitation provision, several studies by NGOs have highlighted important everyday challenges associated with managing menstruation in school environments. This link is further exasperated in rural areas where a lack of access to toilets with a water supply is the norm. This raises further health concerns regarding the amount of time schools girls go without changing the cloth, newspaper or pads they are using, because of lack of a toilets with running water supplies and sewage systems at schools.

Medical research noted that menstrual blood – once it has left the body – gets contaminated with the body’s innate organisms. When these organisms remain in a warm and moist place for a long time they tend to multiply and can lead to conditions like urinary tract infection, vaginal infections and skin rashes.

Currently very little research exisits tracking the number of women who contract these conditions, but what is evident is that without access to sanitary pads and proper toilet facilities, the general health of women, specifically young girls are adversely affected.

While the total amount of girls missing school due to menstruation is greatly contested, the fact that there is a charge on a product which is a health necessity, is a form of regulatory discrimination, compounding existing gender inequalities latent in a post-apartheid patriarchal society.  

While the eradication of all costs related to sanitary products, could cripple the sanitary product industry, a manageable solution would be to make Sanitary Produtcs available in Public Spaces, just as the Department of Health has done with Condoms. This access would benefit the marginalized within our society – who are predominantly poor black women.

We must recognise that poverty is structural and women are disproportionately affected– through various systems of oppression. One of the crudest manifestations of this is the limited access to sanitary pads.

We therefore call on government to provide free sanitary pads in public spaces, to ensure school girls, the poor and homeless have access to this health necessity.

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