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First sanitary pad vending machine in Africa aims to end ‘period poverty’

An environmentally friendly South African invention has been launched to ensure girls from families of limited means can enjoy school and recreational activities despite not being able to afford sanitary towels. 

The MENstruation Foundation, a nonprofit organisation that fights “period poverty”, has introduced a sanitary pad vending machine, the first in Africa. And the pads are locally manufactured and compostable. 

“If men bled once a month, sanitary products would be free. Condoms are free and sanitary products are not, it is a failure of justice,” Siv Ngesi, a co-founder of the MENstruation Foundation, said during Tuesday’s launch of the vending machine. “Many women across the country need to pick between a loaf of bread and a packet of sanitary products. No one is free until sanitary products are free.” 

The School of Hope in Observatory, Cape Town, was the first to receive one of the vending machines.

Ngesi said the foundation, with the support of big business, wants to distribute the machines to schools around South Africa. “We want it in rural areas, we want one of these machines in every single school across the country. We want every single school across the country to have one of our machines in the [bathroom].”

Marius Basson, the foundation’s co-founder, said sustainability was key. The machines were not a once-off solution, but a model that could be adopted by the government and corporates to fight “period poverty”. 

“We need to make this sustainable so that women don’t [only] have a solution for the next 12 or 24 months,” said Basson. “At the end of the day, we give women dignity. We give women the right to go to school, go to a clinic, go to work with back-up plans.”

He said the foundation aims to reach at least 100 schools by 2022, and hopes to double that in the years to come. But support from the corporate sector — such as MTN, which has sponsored two machines — was crucial. One vending machine costs R58 000 and includes sanitary pads for 12 months. It costs R33 000 to restock the machine for another year. 

The machine works on a simple rotation basis, is compact, does not use electricity and is installed in bathrooms.  

Each schoolgirl receives one token that she can use at the vending machine to retrieve a pack of eight sanitary pads per month. Provision is made for girls who might need more than one pack. 

Springbok women’s rugby captain, Babalwa Latsha, a director at MENstruation, said she hoped the vending machine would ensure girls are able to take part in sport even if they are menstruating. 

“Sport is the one place where a girl can be as safe as possible and when you can truly be yourself. It creates young, independent and strong vocal women who do not shy away from anything,” said Latsha.

*This article has been amended to include the IAAF statement since an earlier version stated that it was the IAAF which recommended surgery for Negesa.

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a junior daily news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She was previously a freelance journalist and a broadcaster at Maroela Media and Smile90.4FM.

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