The improvement of women’s health is essential in reducing poverty and fostering economic growth in Africa. Sadly, most women and girls still fail to access menstrual pads due to high costs, especially those from rural areas.

The price of sanitary products keeps rising in Zimbabwe, with a packet of basic pads costing far beyond the means of many girls and women especially in rural areas. More than 62% of rural girls do not afford sanitary pads and as a result end up turning to unhygienic alternatives. Women are discriminated against on the basis of biology. 30-40mls of liquid makes up the average amount of blood that is bled by every woman on their period, every month. Every month a woman has to set aside a budget for sanitary pads, tampons or cotton wool. Every month in Zimbabwe this cost is going up. For over ten years of their life, every month, each woman on their period has to contain 30-40 millilitres of blood, has to make sure no one is affected by the sight of it, has to ‘control’ it so it does not affect those around her.

A lot of stigma surrounds a woman’s period. In some rural homes, women are considered unclean and it is a taboo to mention, show or cause others discomfort by sharing their discomfort during a period. A period is a woman’s problem alone, which forces most women and girls to make do with what they can find to stop or hide their period. This is exacerbated by the fact that most rural households depend on their husbands/ fathers for provision. If he does not provide the necessary sanitary products or finances to purchase what the wife or daughter requires then they are forced to go without and will remain silent so as to not be a burden. When the price of a bag of mealie-meal that can feed the whole family is lower than that of a packet of sanitary wear that provides comfort to only one member of the family, the decision to forgo the latter seems like a simple one. This stigma trickles down to young boys as survey notes that 54% of girls are mocked by boys when they stain their uniforms at school when on their period. This in turn forces girls to stay at home until their period is over, making them miss valuable school time. This stigma is not just limited to young boys, the fact that a woman on her period has to constantly check her seat every time she stands up when on her period at work or social gatherings with men or that she can not just take out her pad from her handbag or school bag and go to the bathroom to change freely because men would stare in disgust. All this shows that period literacy is something that is lacking within our communities, both urban and rural. Much like sex education, period education is something both males and females should learn, together and help demystify some of the myths surrounding a woman’s period.

This Period issue has since moved past it being just a woman’s issue, past being a health issue even, it is now an economic issue as some girls aged from 9 to 14 have resorted to using contraceptives to avoid their period. Oral contraceptives meant for birth control. At such a tender age, taking these contraceptives could have several and severe side effects. Imagine a decade from now, when those who are of child bearing age are no longer able to bear children, and we track back to the cause and we find that they took contraceptive tablets before they were supposed to and incorrectly so too and that they took them to stop their period and that it was because they could not afford the necessary sanitary wear. Imagine a decade from now, when the country’s work force is dwindling because of these side effects. A country / economy cannot function without a functioning work force, without future generations.

In mid November last year, the minister of Finance, Mthuli Ncube at the unveiling of the country’s 2020 budget announced that $200 Million ZWL had been allocated for the provision of sanitary pads starting in January this year to ALL rural girls who have reached puberty. This meant that Zimbabwe would be joining other countries such as Kenya, Botswana, Malawi, Zambia and South Africa that are already, or making moves towards doing the same. While this was a great move, it seems this was only mentioned and done at policy level with no actual implementation on the ground, much like the announcement that duty would be scrapped on sanitary wear to ease the price burden on female consumers . This was said, again, at policy level, but it was not reflected in the prices on the ground, which have kept going higher. Another question to ask is on just how sustainable the sanitary pad distribution would be, economically as well as environmentally.

The environmental impact of sanitary waste is huge with a standard industrially produced pad taking 500 to 800 years to fully decompose, knowing that there are no garbage disposal systems in rural areas or ones that work in most urban areas in the country, this noted by the various rubbish piles in drainage systems and corners of some parts of different places within the cities and towns of Zimbabwe, should it just be about giving out these pads monthly or maybe should we be moving towards more sustainable options such as reusable sanitary towels and the most recently introduced, period panties.

While those have their own drawbacks especially for the rural community in terms of access to water and soap, they do provide a better alternative to traditional methods of blood catching. Another option would be the reusable menstrual cup. While the cup has certain myths surrounding it (which is a story for another day) and where that period literacy mentioned before would be useful,  it does provide a more attainable, eco-friendly and  sustainable solution to the period poverty we currently suffer from as it can last for several years, because in all honesty the price we are paying to hide a natural call of nature is too high. We are truly, physically and financially bleeding out.

More so at a time such as this, during a worldwide pandemic, under lockdown and under stress as hormones that are largely responsible for normal menstrual cycles are altered, in turn, causing a disturbance in cycles. It would not be a surprise to learn that since the Covid-19 lockdown was initiated, some women, instead of getting into their second period cycle are actually getting in to their third or that some cycles have lasted longer than usual, prompting the need to use more sanitary products than in previous cycles, all due to the stress of this pandemic, added to all the other stresses that accompany a woman’s period, from general period anxiety to period pain.

In this decade of action, and especially now, during a pandemic, let us think about how best we can improve the wellbeing of the cornerstone of our economic development, women.

Source: Ska Sebata

*Ska Sebata is a Creative and Social Entrepreneur focusing on the art of fashion as a tool for community development.