(By Yolanda Booyzen)
On the 28th day of the fifth month, Menstrual Hygiene (MH) Day is observed worldwide. This date echoes the menstrual cycle, which usually occurs every 28 days, while menstruation is approximately five days long. MH Day was first observed in 2014, to raise awareness of good menstrual hygiene management and how it can help girls and women reach their full potential. According to German-based NGO WASH United, which initiated the global commemoration, the silence around menstruation and the lack of access to menstruation management products directly impacts the self-esteem, health and education of girls and women, especially in developing countries.
For many girls and women, menstruation is an uncomfortable, painful, inconvenient and expensive experience. Menstruation usually occurs once a month and lasts for approximately three to seven days, accumulating to almost three months of the year. Those who do not have access to menstruation management products such as sanitary pads, panty-liners, tampons, painkillers as well as birth control, are left to their own devices to manage their menstruation cycles. Countless girls and women are not able to participate meaningfully in daily life due to the difficulty of managing bleeding and discomfort without means or support. Many girls miss school while they are having their periods, and some resort to using unhygienic substitutes such as rags, newspapers, banana leaves, grass and even cow dung.
There are a number of programmes and projects trying to address the lack of access to menstruation management products. At the University of Pretoria, the registered society Pledge a Pad aims to collect and distribute sanitary pads to underprivileged communities. Tuks RAG (Reach Out and Give) focuses on drives around access to menstruation products by encouraging students to become active in community-driven projects. Ubuntu Box, a student-driven initiative, recently launched a sanitary pad drive by placing dispensers in female bathrooms around the Hatfield campus[i]. The dispensers are for distributing sanitary pads, but sanitary pad donations can also be deposited.
The South African government, through the Department of Women, launched the Sanitary Dignity Programme in February 2019, with the aim of restoring dignity to young women. In support of this programme the Minister of Finance announced a zero-tax rating on sanitary products, effective from 1 April 2019. Although the zero-tax rating is commendable, it should have been done years ago. (If a packet of sanitary pads costs R45, consumers can expect to save approximately R5 after tax cuts.) Nevertheless, despite this necessary move, these products remain unaffordable to many. The government vowed to provide menstruation management products to indigent persons, as the lack of access to these products impedes on meaningful participation in society, and has a negative impact on health and education. The effectiveness and sustainability of these promises remain under debate. Twitter activity around the hashtag #SanitaryDignitaryProgramme only shows posts of the launch of the campaign on 28 February 2019, with no further activity on the social media platform found since.
The question then becomes: How effective and sustainable are programmes such as the government's Sanitary Dignity Programme, and how feasible is universal access to menstrual hygiene? In the Sanitary Dignity Policy Framework, national and provincial government are expected to provide funding for menstruation management products, while government may enter into partnerships for the purposes of manufacturing, distribution, storage and disposal. Government funding is limited, and has to adhere to tightly monitored and controlled budgets. The Sanitary Dignity Programme will certainly help those in dire need of assistance, but it cannot guarantee universal access. Corporations that produce feminine hygiene products have a responsibility to aid government to uphold the dignity of every girl and woman in South Africa. Multi-national corporations have profit margins to fulfil and investors to appease, and they cannot be expected to provide these products for free. They can, however, reduce the costs significantly by subsidising these products – by, for example, adding a 'period tax' to other more luxurious products. A period tax would help alleviate so-called ‘period poverty’, which prevents girls and women from participating meaningfully in society, attending school and living healthy lives.
Sanitary products do not necessarily have to be available for free in public toilets and other distribution points, but let us make them so affordable that girls and women, from all walks of life, can enter a public or school toilet and buy a sanitary pad or tampon for as little as 10c or 20c. Making them so cheap that they’re almost free seems far more universal and dignified than paying R50 to R100 per month to manage menstrual hygiene. This solution does not guarantee 100% universal access to menstruation management products, but it will reduce the use of unhealthy and undignified measures to manage menstrual hygiene. It’s time for action. We all need to chip in so that girls and women can participate in life meaningfully, without having to worry about something as primal as menstrual hygiene.
Yolanda Booyzen (MPhil Multidisciplinary Human Rights) is the Communications and Marketing Manager at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria.
This article was originally published on the University of Pretoria website.
[i] The following female bathrooms have been fitted with dispensers on the Hatfield Campus: Chancellors building, Humanities building, AIM Centre, Thuto building, Agriculture building, Agriculture annex, Centenary building, IT building, EMS building, Graduate Centre, Engineering building and Theology building.