On any given day in any South African school, a teenage girl is without a sanitary pad when she needs it most. Caught off guard, a menstruating girl will have to ask the other girls in her class, her female teachers, and may even go to the principal for help. But like too many places across the country, the school can’t offer her any help because sanitary pads are not freely distributed in South Africa.
This is a situation that causes great anxiety and stress; the embarrassment of soiling one’s clothes, getting in trouble, others this funny and being teased are all possibilities that girls in schools – and indeed South African women – may have to deal with. Imagine the lengths to which a girl will go to hide her period. Imagine the opportunities she will miss because she didn’t want to expose her extremely normal situation. For far too many, it is not an imaginary nor a simple situation at all.
I once witnessed a cleaning lady handing over a sanitary pad to a girl at a school in Gugulethu. She was this girl’s last hope of staying in class while menstruating. It was clear then as it has been for years: there is a need and it is urgent.
I have heard of girls being forced to improvise and use whatever is available to them. They use toilet paper (if their school can afford it), old newspapers, old rags or even their socks. I doubt anybody is as creative as a teenage girl just trying to hold on to her dignity. Too many girls miss days of school every month because of this natural and necessary occurrence.
Most of these girls are from poorer homes where the idea of spending money every month on an item that can’t be consumed as food or passed on to a younger sibling is seen as a luxury and not a necessity.
So the kids who can least afford to miss any days at school, if they ever want to overcome their legacy of poverty, are forced to miss school by something they have no control over.
In a world where you can watch live news feeds or sporting events on your mobile phone, how is it that we can’t provide girls at school with a free sanitary pad?
Of all the obstacles a young woman from a disadvantaged background will face, this should be the easiest for society to help overcome. The means to do this would not amount to the economic impact from production and potential lost due to a woman waiting for her period to end before returning to work or school. We have the means, but it seems we lack the collective will to solve this problem.
Our government has recognised the problem: last year the Department of Women in the Presidency was meant to ensure that free sanitary pads were made available to women and school girls. Some six years before that, Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address said sanitary towels would be made available. But in this time, nothing has been achieved beyond the production of hot air. The girls in Gugulethu are still waiting, Mr President.
But it is not only government to blame. Nor is it simply the problem of unfortunate girls. It is our collective problem. Just because we are governed by fools does not mean that we should follow in their foolish ways.
Each of us can make a contribution – be it financially or vocally, it is our duty to come to the aid of thousands of girls across our country.
These stories from schools, and the empty promises of government was one of the reasons I became involved in the Running 4 Pads initiative; my weekly mileage now results in the delivery of donated sanitary pads to schools.
Since working with the group over the last year I have gotten knee-deep involved in an issue I didn’t even know existed. How could an adult not know about a dilemma that such a massive part of the population faces? It would appear that for those whom it does not affect, it is not a priority, and even those whom it does affect, there are “more pressing matters”. I have met with principals from high schools and primary schools and I have heard their pleas for help. They are adamant that the problem is serious and it adversely affects the education of these girls.
Officials from the Department of Education say that it is not a priority for them at the moment. They are faced with budgetary concerns and overcrowded schools, although on some days there are more seats available because there are girls waiting out their periods at home.
Collectively we have not done enough; considering the number affected by this issue, there is very little noise calling for sanitary wear. We are becoming complicit in government’s crime of neglect.
Whether its applying pressure on your local counselor, making use of social media, donating funds to organisations that work in the space, or picking up an extra pack of pads for a girl in need, each act will contribute to a young girl’s dignity and holds potential that she will stay in school.
If education is a priority in this country, then so too should be the desire to ensure children stay in classrooms. It is absurd that any girl’s education could be negatively impacted by a natural occurrence. Period. SA
Image: Lindsay Mgbor/Department for International Development
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