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Back to school, back to period poverty!

08 Jan 2019 at 11:36hrs | Views
In a country with 3 million girls and women who menstruate, with about a third of them being school going children either in primary or secondary school, there is a good chance that thousands of them going back to school today are actually having their periods. And given how only 28 percent of them afford sanitary pads, one can only imagine what the rest of them will use to manage their periods for the rest of the school term. Discomfort, leakages, infections, shame, mockery, bullying, you name it; will be the price that those who brave to still attend school without proper sanitary wear will have to pay. Research says only 38 percent of school girls in the country attend school when they are having their periods. The rest don't, not because they don't want to, but because they actually do not afford sanitary wear. Worse still, some do not even afford underwear to hold whatever means they use to manage their periods.

Last term I was touched when I heard that a girl failed to write one of her Grade 7 exams because of her period. Period poverty is real and sanitary wear is not a luxury. Some girls may attend exams without proper sanitary wear and pain relievers but their performance is affected by lack of concentration due to painful cramps and worry that the rags they use may leak and mess the school chair and be laughed at.

As schools open today, it is doom and gloom for some disadvantaged school girls as they will bear the brunt of period poverty and it will be like that for the rest of the term. Missing schools for a number of days every month is inevitable. Some eventually leave school totally, which contributes to the high number of children who are out of school. A recent Global Education Monitoring Report by UNESCO established that 1,5 million Zimbabwean children are out of school (primary, lower and upper secondary). The report said 12 percent of children don't complete primary education, 27 percent don't complete lower secondary and 87 percent don't finish upper secondary. The majority of them are girls.

We surely cannot go on like this when the girl child continues to find it increasingly difficult and impossible to go to school. Target 5 of Sustainable Development Goal number 4 speaks about the need to eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including children in vulnerable situations by 2030. But what is government doing to achieve that?

Inflation has been on the rise, with the tide that is lifting prices of goods also lifting that of sanitary wear as well. While government tried to reduce the price of sanitary wear by removing duty and VAT on imported sanitary wear, in the minority of cases price has remained unchanged and in the majority of cases prices have ironically gone up. Should that be the end of it? Certainly not, especially when government is seen to be taking swift action when it comes to making sure that luxury products remain on the shelves at all cost.

Government intervened to ensure that alcohol, which is a danger to health, should remain affordable to many and not sold in foreign currency. Women and girls who can't afford the high cost are forced to resort to unhygienic means which lead to infections and sometimes even death. Those who produce alcohol have been given foreign currency guarantees while those that make sanitary wear locally or import it are failing to get it. Why are luxuries prioritized over basic necessities? Why is getting drunk more important that the health and wellbeing of girls and women?

Our government should be inspired by countries such as Scotland, Kenya and recently South Africa which have moved to make sanitary wear freely accessible to school girls. Surely why should it be business as usual when 72 percent of school girls do not use sanitary pads and 62 percent of them miss school every month due to lack of sanitary wear? These are basic necessities that foster human development as well as the achievement of a number of human rights such as education, health, among others.

A recent study by the International Monetary Fund established that adding more women to the labour force brings larger economic gains than an equal increase in male workers. We therefore cannot expect to grow this economy sustainably without ensuring that more girls stay in school and acquire appropriate skills to enter the labour market with the same level of competency as their male counterparts. But that can only start by ensuring that girls are not excluded from an early stage by ensuring that they have equal access to education as boys. Lack of sanitary wear must not be allowed to stand in the way of girls' access to education.

This is why we continue to lobby for government to provide free and sustainable sanitary wear as well as pain relievers to girls in school to ensure that missing school when they are menstruating becomes the least of their worries. While some might argue that it is costly, they have to also calculate the cost of not doing that. Government will still somehow pay more, through social expenditure, for every girl who missed their dreams because they failed or dropped out of school due to period poverty. Prevention is therefore better than cure!

From our calculations, with as little as at least US$6 million, every girl child in school can be covered for the next five years with reusable cloth pads. There are now a number of local manufacturers selling the reusable pads at an average price of US$5 per kit with four pads. As the number of menstruating girls in school ranges between 800,000 and 1 million, at least US$6 million will be adequate to provide adequate sanitary wear that is sustainable, including distribution costs. It will also empower local producers of reusable sanitary pads, who are usually small firms.

As Sanitary Aid Zimbabwe, we believe that government should utilize part of the proceeds from the 2 percent Intermediated Money Transfer Tax towards this crucial project. Part of the money is already going towards social services and we believe that free sanitary wear provision for school girls should be prioritized under those social services. In any case, parents are already making their contribution towards that fund when they buy overpriced uniforms, expensive stationery among other goods.

As schools reopen, we encourage policymakers to also open their minds to the plight of underprivileged school girls who are suffering for the mere ‘crime' of being girls.

Theresa Nyava is the founder and director of Sanitary Aid Zimbabwe, a charity that is fighting period poverty by providing free sanitary wear and menstrual health education. To donate towards their cause, use Ecocash Merchant 267259. They are available on Whatsapp and calling number 0771404853.

Source - Theresa Nyava
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