We need national buy-in with the distribution of free sanitary pads

The Kwazulu Natal Department of Education is distributing free sanitary pads to poor menstruating learners as part of an initiative that it launched last year. While this is commendable, it is only the first step in ensuring that sanitary pads are accessible to all those who are menstruating. Lack of access to sanitary pads is not just a matter of education; it is a matter of health and dignity as well.

The initiative to distribute sanitary pads in KwaZulu-Natal was launched in November last year but distribution only commenced at the beginning of the academic year. Muzi Mahlambi, spokesperson of the Kwazulu Natal Department of Education, said that when the new MEC, Mthandeni Dlungwane, came into office last year it was “one of the flagships that he said he wanted to run with.

“Research and observation tells us that our girl learners who are from poor families can’t afford to buy sanitary towels. In a year, they will miss a minimum of 36 days when they have their periods,” he said.

The department has set aside R50 million to fund the distribution of sanitary pads for menstruating learners who fall under the four lowest quintiles of the province. The department will continue to increase the budget for the sanitary pads annually. Previously, some companies and individuals had been assisting the schools with donations but this was not enough to sustain all poor menstruating learners and a formal programme had to be launched.

“We still welcome any type of donation because these are social ills that ourselves as the Department of Education cannot fight alone and win,” Mahlambi said.

The department will be rolling out the sanitary pads to the schools but it is up to the schools to distribute them. Mahlambi said the reaction from the learners and teachers was encouraging.

Teachers welcome decision

Roshan Ramdheen, a teacher in a Durban school, said he thinks the department’s decision to distribute sanitary pads is an excellent initiative. “Some children definitely cannot afford the sanitary pads and the distribution will increase confidence and improve performance at school,” Ramdheen said.

Bali Maeneche, a teacher in Kimberley, said that the financial situation of some learners is so bad that sanitary pads are the least of their worries. “[The child says to you,] I’ve been out of school for a whole week a month ago because I was on my period and my parents could not spend 40-odd rand on sanitary pads,” she said. “It affects concentration when a child has to worry about something as small and as natural as a period.”

Pontsho Pilane, health reporter at Bhekisisa, has been advocating for free sanitary pads for people who menstuate with the non-profit organisation, Livity, and online petition site, amandla.mobi said for poor learners who menstruate, having access to free sanitary pads means that “they will not have to have social anxiety of being at school without pads.”

Pilane, who presented a proposal for the implementation of free sanitary pads to Parliament last year, said not having access to sanitary pads causes “unnecessary stress,” stops from fully participating in the classroom and in physical activity and “affects the day-to-day wellness mentally, physically and emotionally of learners.”

Mahlambi said this initiative is not a standalone one but is “an integrated program with the curriculum.” He said that rolling out the pads completes “the missing link” between education – where Life Sciences and Life Orientation educators teach the biology and hygiene of menstruation – and real life.

“We take it as a kind of apparatus and say you have taught them theory, but you are now providing them with something that they can use in terms of the material,” he said.

The initiative taken by the provincial department is a long term one.

“As long as there are girls that are in need of this material, we will try to provide – just as we provide learners with stationery and textbooks. It’s an integrated type of material to the education of our children because if its not attended to, it becomes a hindrance,” said Mahlambi.

Maeneche said that there needs to be national coordination to make sanitary pads accessible to all. “The decision that was taken by Kwazulu Natal should actually be a national initiative. How many other South African kids are suffering, and cannot come to class because they are on their period?” she asked.

What are other provinces doing about it?

In September last year, National Treasury told members of Parliament that government departments should budget to provide sanitary pads to members of the public, and schools, for free. However, there is a lack of intergovernmental coordination to ensure that the initiative is implemented nationwide.

The Gauteng Department of Education has funded a similar initiative for the past three years, according to Gauteng MEC, Panyaza Lesufi, who told The Daily Vox that the department had partnered with the Department of Social Development to supply township schools and schools in poor areas with 25, 000 “dignity packs” each month.

“We call it dignity packs because it [also] includes roll-on, Vaseline, body lotion, Colgate, toothbrush,” Lesufi said.

However, Western Cape Department of Education spokesperson, Paddy Attwell, says the province has given a similar initiative much thought and although they support it, budget constraints are a big issue. “We’d love to be able to [follow suit] but unfortunately we just don’t have the resources at the moment to deal with it adequately,” Attwell said.

Pilane said it’s not only about education, but about health and dignity too. “If you don’t have pads, a person will then use something like old newspapers, sand (they would stuff old rags of clothing with sand) or socks and that type of stuff has health implications where people can get bacterial infections in their reproductive system.”

Pilane believes the initiative needs to be taken a step further. She believes that there needs to be better national coordination with buy-in from various stakeholders to distribute pads – not just to learners in schools, but to all people who menstruate on a large scale.

“These learners who can’t afford [sanitary pads] and are menstruating are going back into households where they are not the only people who are menstruating. So that packet is going to be shared among how many people in one household? What about the mothers of these learners? Their siblings, who are of menstruating age as well? What happens to them? This is why it’s important that there is a national policy and framework of distribution,” she said.

Menstruation is still taboo – considered dirty and shameful – in South Africa and its destigmatisation is important in schools and society.

“It’s not just the money to make the pads and give them out, it’s about making sure that people who menstruate live in a world that does not shame them for the things that their bodies do naturally that they can’t stop,” said Pilane.

Featured image via Flickr