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Period Poverty in South Africa
Many women menstruate monthly for an average of 40 years of their lives. In many countries, like South Africa, women do not have access to the sanitary products they need each month. Period poverty in South Africa affects girls and women by preventing them from working and going to school. This creates stigma surrounding periods and has a negative effect on their overall hygiene. However, several organizations are working to combat each of these components of period poverty.

Since up to 7 million South African girls do not have access or cannot afford to buy sanitary products, many of them must stay home. Many also report using old clothes and newspapers as sanitary pads when they cannot use sanitary products meant for periods. This is unhygienic and can cause other health problems and infections. Often, girls and women must choose between buying food and sanitary products because of the costs. When faced with this difficult choice, many choose to purchase food as it takes more of a priority. As a result, many must face the health and social consequences of not having sanitary products.

Period Poverty in Schools

An estimated 30% of South African girls do not attend school while they are on their period because they do not have sanitary products. Many often experience teasing in school when they attend while on their periods. The frequency of period-related mishaps increases when girls do not have access to the proper sanitary products. In turn, this causes teasing and also reinforces a stigma surrounding periods. This makes it more difficult for women and girls to voice their concerns about their periods. Many lack access to period products out of fear of others ignoring or ridiculing them.

As more girls miss school while menstruating, it is more difficult for them to learn. With limited education, there is less of a chance for girls to lift themselves and their communities out of poverty. This is the crux of period poverty in South Africa.

Organizations Helping

While there are many problems that come with period poverty in South Africa, many organizations are using their platforms to increase access to sanitary products. They are also aiming to reduce the stigma surrounding periods.

In 2018, a group of student activists organized protests under the slogan and hashtag #BecauseWeBleed to end the 15% Value Added Tax on period products. In 2019, the South African government dropped the tax thanks to the efforts of these students and others.

Project Dignity is an organization that distributes reusable sanitary pads and has been reducing period poverty in South Africa since 2010. The name of these sanitary pads is Subz and they come in a pad and underwear duo which keep moisture away from the body and last up to five years. Project Dignity distributed 65,000 Subz to South African students. The founders also provide education about hygiene, menstruation and HIV.

Like Project Dignity, Qrate Za educates young women about menstruation. In 2018, its founder, Candice Chirwa started creating resources for parents and teachers to educate their children about menstruation. She now conducts workshops to show hundreds of girls how to speak openly about their periods, effectively reducing the stigma surrounding periods. This is an important step in creating a conversation about period poverty in South Africa.

Looking Ahead

Each of these organizations has brought South Africa a step closer to ending period poverty, whether it is through ending the added tax, creating a sustainable sanitary product or educating about menstruation. This work is a pillar in bringing women and girls in South Africa a sustainable lifestyle where their periods do not have to put their health or education at risk.

– Sana Mamtaney
Photo: Flickr

Period Poverty Challenges Period poverty challenges women worldwide because many women cannot afford or do not have access to menstrual products. Whether in the United States, Ireland, Great Britain or South Africa, many women struggle with period poverty and need resources to properly manage their menstruation.

Period Poverty Challenges in Africa

According to ActionAid, one in 10 girls in Africa do not attend school because they lack access to menstrual products or private hygiene facilities at school. Moreover, 50% of schoolgirls in Kenya do not have access to menstrual products. In addition, community stigmas and taboos about menstruation lead to girls experiencing emotional and mental problems. Girls and women in these situations often feel the need to hide their periods because of the shame associated with menstruation. Understanding the anthropological impacts and possible solutions to period poverty reveals beneficial changes that could help women.

Anthropological Perspective

According to the anthropological perspective of menstruation, menstruation is the biological experience of young girls that notifies them of their body’s transition to womanhood. In a world with more than 300 million women menstruating per day, menstruation is still not openly discussed. In places where menstruation is considered taboo or dirty, women tend to have negative perceptions of themselves. This encourages secrecy and shame. Research suggests that menstruation as a topic of private discussion is universal. Women and girls are expected to deal with their menstruation in silence and invisibility.

Period Poverty Interventions

Sophia Bay, researcher of “Moving Toward a Holistic Menstrual Hygiene Management: An Anthropological Analysis of Menstruation and Practices in Western and Non-Western Societies,” proposes interventions that go beyond the issue of accessing menstrual products. Bay addresses the social stigma and shame as well. The first intervention recognizes the issue of access to menstrual products and the second addresses efforts to destigmatize the topic of menstruation.

When girls in lower-income areas have access to period products regularly, their risk of anxiety and fear is drastically reduced. Additionally, access to sanitation such as handwashing facilities and clean toilets is important to improve hygiene. Increasing privacy is also vital to sanitation as this will prevent young girls from improperly discarding used menstrual products. Lastly, puberty education needs to be prioritized. Many women do not know enough about menstruation. A lack of education about biological changes negatively impacts how girls see themselves and menstruation.

Qrate Workshops

Individuals and organizations are working to change the stigma surrounding periods and address period poverty challenges. Candice Chirwa, the founder of the organization Qrate, currently works with communities in parts of South Africa to educate people about menstruation. She is a passionate menstruation activist, speaker and scholar who uses artistic techniques to encourage conversation about periods and period poverty. Visual art, dancing and acting offer an opportunity for communities to discuss a usually challenging topic in a light-hearted way.

In an interview with The Borgen Project, Chirwa explains that the girls play games to become more confident in themselves during the workshops. For example, one of these games requires the girls to pretend to explain different menstrual products to an alien. This helps them learn more about the products and become more comfortable talking about menstruation. Chirwa explains that the game also lets her know whether the girls are gaining the menstrual knowledge they need.

Ending Period Poverty

Facilitating workshops for young girls in South Africa has shown promise. Furthermore, understanding period poverty from an anthropological perspective offers explanations for the negative cultural stigma around periods. Using the work of researchers, making period products accessible, ensuring menstrual education and taking action to combat the stigma work hand-in-hand to alleviate period poverty.

Nyelah Mitchell
Photo: Flickr