Free to learn

Private-sector campaigns are helping keep girls in school

Free to learn

As I write this, the US is experiencing a tampon shortage. Yet for so many SA girls and young women, a sanitaryware shortage is (and always has been) their lived reality. Period poverty isn’t ‘a girl thing’ – it affects everyone. A lack of access to sanitaryware is responsible for keeping millions of girls out of school for roughly a week each month, leaving them struggling to keep up with their male counterparts.

Countless studies show that nations with educated women are more likely to thrive on every level – they contribute to creating a more prosperous economy; they marry later; and they have more control over when, and how, they become mothers. Offspring of educated women are less likely to be exposed to poverty or domestic violence, and more likely to complete 12 years of education. Educated women are better informed about nutrition and healthcare. Most compellingly, when educated women lift themselves out of poverty, they take their children and their communities with them.

The hard lockdowns set girls’ education back even further. In August last year, the organisation Save the Children reported a 60% increase in the number of children born to teen mothers in Gauteng since the start of the pandemic.

Any serious conversation about lifting girls – who are disproportionately burdened with gender-related vulnerabilities such as teenage pregnancy, cultural taboos and GBV – out of poverty has to include the rights of girls to menstrual dignity and freedom.

After an uproar about what became known as the ‘tampon tax’, a form of gender discrimination, sanitaryware in SA was exempted from VAT as of 2019 (this applies only to sanitary pads, not tampons or menstrual cups) – an acknowledgement by government of the prohibitive costs of feminine hygiene products.

Unfortunately, there are no hard figures that tell us just how many girls miss school each month due to a lack of access to sanitaryware. Some estimates place the figure at 7 million, while others venture as many as one-in-three girls. What is known is that this tax cut is nowhere near enough to assist those living in poverty, who may not have access to sanitaryware – not only due to the expense but also lack of access in rural areas and cultural taboos.

There have long been calls for government to make sanitaryware available for free to school-going girls living in poverty, and while provisions have been made – such as a R157 million commitment of the fiscal budget in 2018 to make menstrual health a priority, and an allocated stipend in the National Student Financial Aid Scheme – it’s not yet known how these provisions are reaching and assisting girls living in poverty.

However, it’s the private sector that is taking the initiative. Earlier this year, to honour Menstrual Hygiene Day on 28 May, Clicks’ Helping Hand Trust partnered with Gift of the Givers and sanitaryware producer Always to donate 1 200 packs of sanitary pads to girls at a high school in Tembisa. This formed part of a much bigger donation of 633 000 sanitary products, valued at R1.5 million, being handed over to schools and communities the following month.

Every year, Proctor & Gamble, which owns the Always brand, donates more than 960 000 pads to girls in schools across SA through its Always Keeping Girls In School programme. In 2020, FNB assisted 1 023 girls in 20 schools across the country with reusable pads and workshops on female hygiene.

Last year, Sumitomo Rubber South Africa donated more than 1 000 menstrual cups and training to girls in KwaZulu-Natal, while in April, Lil-Lets donated 10 000 sanitary pads to KwaZulu-Natal flood victims.

The supply-chain issues the US is experiencing is a harbinger that, downstream, SA may soon be affected by a similar, more extreme shortage, making the prioritisation of girls’ access to sanitaryware – and education – all the more urgent.

By Robyn MacLarty