Managing a menstrual cycle without any sanitary wear is almost impossible for most women and one would imagine how devastating it can be for 10-year or 11-year-old girls. Like any other poverty-related challenges such as homelessness and shortages of food and water, the prevalence of period poverty is high in Zimbabwe, especially in the country’s rural areas, where girls at times have to abscond school because they cannot cope without sanitary wear.
Period poverty is the state whereby women and girls are unable to access sanitary products and will be having inadequate knowledge of how to care for themselves during menstruation mainly due to financial constraints, and it is usually experienced by less privileged girls and women who come from extremely poor backgrounds.
Not having access to a safe and hygienic way to deal with menstruation can have profound consequences, particularly on a girl’s education. With more than 3 million girls in Zimbabwe menstruating, there is, therefore, high demand for feminine products. However, there is a backlog in meeting such a demand as sanitary wear production is low in the country, forcing women to rely on imported pads, which are very expensive.
Most underprivileged girls end up wearing rags and using cow dung, which is risky as it does not only affect their health by exposing them to infections but also degrades their dignity, especially in school where they have to go through the embarrassment of being ridiculed by boys after, for instance, a leakage stains a girl’s clothing or uniform.
According to a study by Stitching Nenderlandse Vrijwilligers (SNV), a Foundation of Netherlands Volunteers – Zimbabwe, 72 percent of menstruating schoolgirls do not use sanitary pads because they can’t afford them. However, with the coming in of reusable pads, the probability of the situation improving seem to be high as are cheap and accessible. But according to health experts based in Mudzi, safety and hygiene are difficult to preserve if re-usable pads are used in the absence of reliable sources of potable water.
“In terms of hygiene, re-usable pads are not 100 percent safe due to lack of knowledge on how to properly use them. Girls here spend long hours wearing the pads which exposes them to high risks of diseases like cervical cancer and other infections as they need to be constantly changed.
Mudzi is one of the areas that have been receiving donations of reusable and disposable pads from various voluntary organizations with an aim to end period poverty in Zimbabwe.
“As girls, we encounter certain challenges while using reusable pads. Reusable pads require thorough cleaning, but some of the girls are not able to properly rinse the pads, which is a risk as it exposes them to sores in genital areas. Other girls in our area come from poor backgrounds where affording laundry soap is beyond their reach. They end up leaving the pads dirty and not properly washed which is a threat to their health and wellbeing. So, we plead that these donations come along with the handy soap to wash them”, added Kimberly Pahuwa, a 16-year-old one of Mudzi’s local schools.
Although volunteer teachers and nonprofit organizations have been making an effort to try and close the period poverty gap, there is need for increased penetration in remote areas, where knowledge deficiency on sexual reproduction is still rampant and sometimes considered taboo.
“It is important that we work together as a country to make pads accessible and affordable to the less privileged girls. It is also important to educate young boys because they one day they may become become single fathers, so they will understand the gravity of the matter”, said Thandekile Magqina, Towels for Girls project founder and co-ordinator,.
Meanwhile, women and girls in other rural communities like Wedza, are forking out US$1 or ZWL$200 for a packet of pads.
“Sanitary wear is very expensive for most women and girls in our community and this undermines our self-esteem, especially that of young girls who usually end up engaging in immoral activities to get money for the pads because if they do not have the pads they abscond from school during their cycles. This is killing any form of development from women in our country,” said Tafadzwa Gwatidzo, a local woman from Wedza.
Zimbabwe’s protracted economic crisis has severely damaged the country’s economic potential. Basic needs like food, water, and sanitary wear are scarce which significantly lowers the standard of living. Girls’ and women’s health must be prioritized, especially during their menstrual cycle. This can only be attained if sanitary wear is made available, accessible,, and affordable for every woman and girl child.