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‘​We need national buy-in to provide sanitary pads to poor women and girl learners’

The Kwazulu-Natal department of education is distributing free sanitary pads to girl learners who cannot afford to buy them as part of an initiative it launched in November. 

The distribution of the pads began at the start of the school year.  Kwazulu-Natal education department spokesperson Muzi Mahlambi said that when the new MEC, Mthandeni Dlungwane, came into office last year it was “one of the flagships that he said he wanted to run with”.

“Research and observation tells us that our girl learners, who are from poor families, can’t afford to buy sanitary towels. In a year, they will miss a minimum of 36 days when they have their periods,” Mahlambi said.

I don’t think you guys understand how progressive this KZN DOE move is. Free sanitary pads is what we’ve been crying for.

They listened.

— Princess of Nkandla (@Sisi_Sasha) February 1, 2017

Some companies and individuals have been assisting schools with donations but this was not enough for all the girl learners and a formal programme had to be launched, he explained.

The department has set aside R50-million to fund the distribution of pads to learners whose schools are in the four lowest quintiles. The department will increase the budget for the pads annually. 

“We still welcome any type of donation because these are social ills that ourselves as the department of education cannot fight alone and win,” Mahlambi said.

The department will provide the pads and it is up to the schools to distribute them. Mahlambi said the reaction from the learners and teachers was encouraging.

Teachers welcome decision
Roshan Ramdheen, a teacher at a Durban school, said he thinks the department’s decision to distribute pads is an excellent initiative. 

“Some children definitely cannot afford the sanitary pads and the distribution will increase confidence and improve performance at school,” Ramdheen said.

Bali Maeneche, a teacher in Kimberley, said the financial situation of some learners is so bad that pads are the least of their worries. “[The child says to you,] ‘I’ve been out of school for a whole week a month ago because I was on my period and my parents could not spend 40-odd rand on sanitary pads’,” she said. “It affects concentration when a child has to worry about something as small and as natural as a period.”

Bhekisisa health reporter Pontsho Pilane, who has been advocating for free sanitary pads with the non-profit organisation Livity and online petition site, said the provision of pads means learners “will not have to have the social anxiety of being at school without pads”.

Pilane, who presented a proposal for the implementation of free pads to Parliament last year, said not having them causes “unnecessary stress”, forces learners to deist from fully participating in the classroom and in physical activity and “affects the day-to-day wellness mentally, physically and emotionally of learners”.

Mahlambi said this initiative is “an integrated programme with the curriculum”. He said that providing the pads completes “the missing link” between education – where life sciences and life orientation teachers teach the biology and hygiene of menstruation – and real life.

“We take it as a kind of apparatus and say you have taught them theory, but you are now providing them with something that they can use in terms of the material,” he said.

The initiative taken by the provincial department is a long-term one. “As long as there are girls that are in need of this material, we will try to provide, just as we provide learners with stationery and textbooks. It’s an integrated type of material to the education of our children because if it’s not attended to, it becomes a hindrance,” said Mahlambi.

Maeneche said there needs to be national co-ordination to make pads accessible to all girl learners from poor families. “The decision that was taken by Kwazulu-Natal should actually be a national initiative. How many other South African kids are suffering, and cannot come to class because they are on their period?” she asked.

What are other provinces doing about it?
In September, the treasury told members of Parliament that government departments should budget to provide sanitary pads to members of the public and schools. This will require intergovernmental co-ordination. 

The Gauteng education department has funded a similar initiative for the past three years, said the province’s MEC of education, Panyaza Lesufi. He told The Daily Vox that the department had partnered with the social development department to supply township schools and schools in other poor areas with 25 000 “dignity packs” each month.

“We call them dignity packs because they [also] include roll-on, Vaseline, body lotion, Colgate and toothbrushes,” Lesufi said.

Western Cape education department spokesperson Paddy Attwell says the province has given a similar initiative much thought and, although they support it, budget constraints are a big issue. “We’d love to be able to [follow suit] but unfortunately we just don’t have the resources at the moment to deal with it adequately,” Attwell said.

Pilane said it’s not only about education, but about health and dignity too. “If you don’t have pads, a person will then use something like old newspapers, sand [they would stuff old rags of clothing with sand] or socks and that type of stuff has health implications where people can get bacterial infections in their reproductive system.”

tampons and period pads should be free mate I didn’t chose the blood life the blood life chose my vagina

— Shannon Valentine (@shanvalentine_) January 31, 2017

She also believes the initiative needs to be taken a step further to improve national co-ordination and buy-in from various stakeholders to distribute pads to girl learners and people from poor families who menstruate.

“These learners who can’t afford [pads] and are menstruating are going back into households where they are not the only people who are menstruating. So that packet is going to be shared among how many people in one household? What about the mothers of these learners? Their siblings, who are of menstruating age as well? What happens to them? This is why it’s important that there is a national policy and framework of distribution,” she said.

Pilane said menstruation is still taboo – considered dirty and shameful – and its destigmatisation is important in schools and society.

“It’s not just about giving them [pads] out, it’s about making sure that people who menstruate live in a world that does not shame them for the things that their bodies do naturally that they can’t stop.” – The Daily Vox

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Shaazia Ebrahim
Shaazia Ebrahim is a Master’s candidate at the Centre for Gender Studies at SOAS. Ebrahim is also a former Wits University student and reported for The Daily Vox during the second wave of Fees Must Fall.

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