Editorial: At last, dignity for women

Persistent lobbying and campaigning, mostly by those who menstruate every month, has finally paid off.

This week, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni announced in his mid-term budget policy statement that value-added tax (VAT) would be dropped from sanitary pads from April next year. And more money will be given to provinces to ensure that an increasing number of pupils get free sanitary towels at school.

Mboweni’s words during his medium-term budget policy statement on Wednesday are a victory years in the making for women and girls. It was won by the hard work of those, mainly women, who fought for zero-rating on sanitary pads with petitions and even by dragging a giant pad to Parliament.

In a country of protest, there were no dramatic photographs, no blood on the streets. This was a battle fought less with teargas and toyi-toying and more by everyday people arming themselves with facts about what it meant for women and about the dividends in dignity, health and education that it would earn for our country. They put tough questions to government officials about how this could be done. They petitioned, presented and lobbied.

Mboweni’s announcement holds promise for every person who has to choose between buying food or menstrual pads each month — or those who spend their periods trying not to move too much for fear of dislodging the old T-shirts, strips of towelling or wads of paper they have fashioned into makeshift pads. Afraid that they’ll bleed through their school uniforms or clothes. Fearful of the ridicule that would follow.

This week, South Africans overcame in some ways the silence and shame tied to menstruation.

But Mboweni’s pledge could fall victim to the same mix of graft and poor planning that leave the best policies unrealised. Money for free pads will be factored into the share provinces get from the treasury each year. Without ring-fencing, these resources remain vulnerable to reallocation when they hit provincial coffers. We know, anecdotally, of school pad pilot projects that have not been without their faults, including possibly dodgy tenders.

South Africans fought for the right to VAT zero-rated pads and free pads for pupils who can’t afford them. We hope that those in positions of power know that we will all be watching for any problems.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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