Period poverty needs a truth revolution in Zimbabwe

As we celebrate Menstrual Hygiene Day today, we need to do some serious reckoning about period poverty in Zimbabwe. In fact we need to have a paradigm shift as women and girls about how we talk about period poverty. Now is not the time to beat about the bushes – Period poverty needs a truth revolution in Zimbabwe! It is really like playing hide and seek. Sometimes we just have to call a spade a spade. We have a spade in Zimbabwe called Period Poverty – but we keep on skirting around the issue. We need a truth revolution regarding period poverty!

The nature of the problem is that we keep hiding the real issues and truth around the issue of period poverty. There has never been a more opportune time to talk about this deep issue of Period poverty than during this Covid-19 pandemic. However the conversation cannot be buttered-up by nice rosy words.

What truth do we need to be telling each other? What do our men need to know? What should our policy makers need to hear? Women are suffering in silence about the lack of amenities needed to handle the monthly circle. It’s understandable why women have suffered in silence and why it’s been a taboo to speak about menstrual issues. It’s steeped in the patriarchal nature of our societies. As girls and women we are taught to hide this natural phenomenon from a very early age such that by the time it happens we have been trained well enough to hide it from society’s prodding ears and eyes and have perfected the art so well that even when the scale is now so lopsided against us to our own detriment and well-being we keep on hiding our pain and discomfort in shame yet man can easily advocate for the availability of free condoms. Why have the needs of women been put in the back burner for so long? As long as we do not speak out about the cost of pads, cotton wool and tampons and now cloth prices will be much more than that of school fees of some schools per term or more than the price of a subsidized bag of mealie meal. Are our leaders so blind and immune to the issues of women such that they would turn a blind eye to our plight? Let’s put period poverty in the context of rural areas for example were 60 % of Zimbabwe’s population reside. Factors responsible for period poverty in rural areas are diverse and dynamic and more pronounced than in cities and towns. First and foremost poverty in itself is a factor as most families in Zimbabwe are living from hand to mouth due to a variety of factors such as the fact that 80% of the population are unemployed and now with Covid-19 more so. Our industries have been ravaged by years of mismanagement, corruption and the unfortunate impacts of sanctions as industries fail to access lines of finance.

In particular here in rural areas the scourge of drought is a constant threat and this year it is no different. Our areas in particular are near national parks so what survives the drought is finished off by wild animals such as baboons and elephants making the food security challenges even more pronounced-this means all the resources for families are diverted towards obtaining mealie meal and some form of relish and as such the needs of girls and women in particular become sidelined. Take this anomaly-a subsidized 10kg bag of mealie meal is costing 70$ZWL about 1.30 USD and a packet of sanitary pads is costing about 90$ZWL which is about 1.70 USD. Faced with such a choice most families will opt to buy mealie meal. The cost of pads is just too high. Patriarchy always rears its ugly head both at community level and National level – what necessities have women forgone including pads and cotton wool while mean still imbibe on their beer and comforts. Women are suffering in silence brothers! Is there not a cause? How much does a packet of cigarettes cost a day yet it is still a choice most of you choose to indulge in while your sisters and mothers use old rugs-there must be a shame in all this.

Lack of sanitation facilities and access to water contributes significantly to period poverty in rural areas. Menstruation by its nature needs water in order to maintain good hygiene and also needs a way of disposing the sanitary wear. Clean water access in our province – Matabeleland North stands at 51% and sanitation services only at 21%. Imagine 60 % of the population here in Matabeleland North are practicing open defecation( source- Zimbabwe MICS 2019 Survey).

Period poverty is also exacerbated by poor infrastructure in terms of transport availability and places to purchase the sanitary wear. Transport to and from rural areas will cost an average of $2USD-it is not cost effective to use transport to go into town to stock up on sanitary wear. Also should girls and women decide to purchase in the local community shops they might not find sanitary wear or might fund it overly expensive.
Faced with the above issues what do we women actual resort to? Some old clothes – but they need to be able to absorb blood, so how many t-shirts can be torn every month or so for a family with three girls or women. Some paper, some tissue and others who are lucky can use cotton wool as the cost of pads has just gotten way out of hand. There are some who are lucky and do access sanitary pads but observations show that most of these are young girls who sometimes have parents buy for them but mostly boyfriends buy these pads for them but at what cost- are young girls trading of their futures to obtain the dignity of having comfortable periods. Reusable pads can work but the challenge here with reusable pads is the access to clean water and soap to wash these pads and their lifespan usually runs for a year. It is also difficult to find local supplies of the materials used to make reusable pads otherwise the cost ends up being too high -others have tried to run pad campaigns but this woman issue is a constant monthly challenge-How many pad campaigns can be done? Policy shifts and budgetary allocations would be more sustainable not piecemeal actions to appease women and girls with women falling for the carrots so quickly and with such short sight.

Covid-19 measures in Zimbabwe came very fast and furious. With no time for women and girls to gather supplies of sanitary wear for those who can afford. Cooped up in our homesteads this monthly menace does not stop. For girls and women in rural areas who are faced with patriarchal systems it means girls and woman have to make an extra effort to hide their monthly patterns and lockdowns make this process that much harder because where does one dry their used towels that need washing. Where can girls and women burn without being noticed by the prying eyes of men and boys who might find amusement in such scenarios. Everyone is under restrictions-some young people have resorted to using contraceptive to deal with periods which is dangerous for their future health and has financial challenges too.

A common problem among African girls and women is what is called ‘Jeko’ which is acute period pain which can last for days on end. Most deal with this problem by taking over the counter medicines that alleviate pain such as paracetamol and ibuprofen. These cost at least a dollar USD- without the pain killers the pain can be unbearable to such an extent that fathers and brothers must be told of what is causing discomfort to their sisters and mothers causing embarrassment to the girls and women. This simple medication can become very out of reach in our extended lockdowns.

Sanitary wear issues are very secondary to most of the bread and better issues our society is currently facing. Our political classes are usually stone deaf to such issues and because people are faced with hunger, period poverty is an after thought both for governments and most civil society. Pre-Covid in his budget statement through pressure from pressure groups the Minister of Finance had set aside 200 million Zimbabwe dollars to be used to furnish schools with sanitary wear for girls and had removed duty on sanitary wear. We await to see the implementation of this move in our local schools post Covid-19 but also it is clear that policy initiatives most of the times are not implemented as much as there are touted at policy level.

Government needs to do more to protect our textile industry from second hand clothing bales that have damaged the industry which in normal circumstances would have been the creators of sanitary wear products. Covid-19 has resulted in the ban of these but how long will the ban last. The industries need retooling and capitalization – unfortunately this will not be forthcoming as our economy continues to bleed by man made problems and now demons.

As we do our webinars and zoom meetings today and our twitter polls let’s call a spade a spade. Women in Zimbabwe are in trouble when it comes to Menstrual Hygiene – we need to let you know that we are suffering. Stop talking and start acting. Let the truth be told.

Source: Sefelepelo Sebata

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