HARARE, Zimbabwe – One winter morning in 2013, Gladys Moyo raised her hand in class to respond to a math question on the blackboard. As she stood up to give the answer, other students stared at her and laughed. She went ahead and solved the equation, but only later found out why her classmates were laughing.
“When I stood up to answer the question, I had stained my blue uniform with menstrual blood,” says Moyo, now 17. “Unfortunately, our teacher was male so he never paid attention to why the class laughed, except commanding everyone to silence.”
For the rest of the day, Moyo was mocked by other students and ended up walking home alone. When she got there, her sister pointed to some rags – the only things in the house for her to use as sanitary towels. “My sister has been struggling to pay my school fees ever since our parents died,” Moyo says. Her sister, a single mother of three, ekes out a living by selling vegetables in the streets of Harare.
Unable to afford sanitary pads and afraid of being made fun of again, Moyo stayed home from school every time she had her period. Then she dropped out when her sister could no longer afford to send her.
The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) says one in 10 girls in Africa will miss school during their period and eventually drop out; while World Bank statistics show girls are absent about four days every month, harming their education. In Zimbabwe specifically, a study by the Dutch development agency SNV reveals that 72 percent of girls in rural primary schools who menstruate do not use sanitary pads.
For many girls, the problem is both social and financial. There is often a stigma attached to menstruation: Girls can be seen as “dirty” while on their period. And in many places, sanitary pads are too expensive for most girls to afford. In Zimbabwe, the past month saw price increases of goods and commodities, with sanitary pads now costing $1.50–$4, more expensive than they were before before.
“Girls are forced to starve or engage in transactional sex to raise money for sanitary wear, making them vulnerable to sexual abuse, teenage pregnancy and HIV infections,” says Talent Jumo, a director of the women’s group Katswe Sistahood.
Rights advocates say the solution is simple: Give school-age girls free sanitary pads.
Kenya and South Africa already make it easier for impoverished and marginalized communities to access sanitary pads. Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta has pledged to supply free pads to girls in school, but this policy is not in place yet. Sanitary pads have been tax-free there for 10 years. In South Africa, the department of education for the province of KwaZulu-Natal gives 3,000 schools free pads every month, with each girl in grades four to 12 getting a pack of 12.
Various civic organizations and government bodies are now trying to do the same in Zimbabwe, devising initiatives to ensure that reaching puberty doesn’t condemn girls to missing school or dropping out altogether.
In October, the minister of women affairs, gender and community development, Nyasha Chikwinya, announced that the ministry has contracted two companies to manufacture sanitary pads that will be distributed for free or at low cost (50 cents). Chikwinya did not say when the project will start, and the ministry has not responded to requests from News Deeply for more information.
The Rozaria Memorial Trust, based in Murewa, in rural Mashonaland East province, provides five schools with sanitary pads and education in menstrual hygiene. It also helps children pay for their school fees and uniforms.
The organization has also started the Rozaria Girls Clubs, where girls aged between 13 and 18 – including those out of school – receive free sanitary pads every quarter. So, far more than 1,000 girls in Mashonaland East and West provinces have benefited from the program, says chief executive officer Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda.
“We provide information on menstrual health, rights, personal care and wellness,” Gumbonzvanda says. “The project provides 500 girls in five rural secondary schools with access to menstrual health information, sanitary towels and peer support and mentorship, and thereby [helps] increase their achievements in education and enhance their self-esteem.”
The Real Open Opportunities for Transformation Support (ROOTS), a grassroots organization that has been combating child marriage in Zimbabwe, has embarked on a campaign to ensure the sustainable provision of sanitary pads for girls in rural areas.
“In our work, we have interacted with young women and girls who get into transactional sex to afford basics such as sanitary pads,” says ROOTS director Beatrice Savadye. “When these girls fall pregnant, due to the existing cultural norms, they are then forced into marriage.”
Savadye says the organization is awaiting delivery of a sanitary towel machine, which it bought with funding support from the Dutch embassy. ROOTS plans to use the machine, which can make 1,000 disposable sanitary pads per month, to help 20 child brides earn an income by manufacturing the pads and selling them at affordable prices.
While giving girls sanitary pads seems like an easy fix, they are not the sole solution to girls’ problems. Savadye says keeping girls in school requires governments, organizations and communities to address a whole host of other factors as well.
“Sanitary pads should be provided as a basic need to keep girls in school,” she says. “[But] there is also the need to make the school environment safe for girls. And raising awareness to debunk retrogressive societal norms that promote the preference of the boy child over girls should be a priority in communities.”