83% of girl learners in SA struggle to access menstrual hygiene products
Learners say menstruation is a fact, not a choice and should be mainstreamed in conversations and schools so that it stops being a taboo subject.
“I was at home when I started bleeding and went to tell my cousins who gave me pads for the blood. I live with my father and at first, I was scared to tell him because he is a man. I told him after two days and he said, ‘Oh that means you’re grown now, my child!’” 15-year-old Jessica Mateus told Maverick Citizen.
Busisiwe Kekana (now 15) was 11 when she started menstruating. She says her mother had bought her a pack of sanitary pads the year before in anticipation.
“I live with my dad so when I got my period he got my aunt to speak to me about menstruation. At primary school, they never taught us about menstruation and when I got to secondary school ‘Always’ came to our school and gave us pads,” she said.
Both Kekana and Mateus said they did not have monthly access to sanitary pads because they were often too scared to ask their fathers to buy pads. Mateus said she sometimes had to go to her cousins’ house to get sanitary pads, while Kekana said, “I feel bad because I can’t go to my dad. Sometimes I just close myself in my room crying when I am on my period and do not have pads until my dad comes into my room and sees the blood.”
Tracey Malawana is the founder of an organisation called I Menstruate which aims to address issues of “period poverty” — which alludes to girls and women not having access to information on menstruation or menstrual hygiene products, resulting in them feeling shame and often missing out on valuable school time.
In March, the organisation launched a research report on menstrual hygiene management in SA schools which found that:
- 83% of girl learners do not have regular access to menstrual hygiene products at school and at home;
- Only one out of five girl learners knew what was happening to them when they experienced their first menstrual period. Some believed they were dying; and
- One in four girl learners (who menstruate) misses school monthly because of a lack of access to menstrual hygiene products and support during their menstrual periods.
The full research report will be released on 24 May.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Reproductive health — it’s time for a lasting solution to period poverty
Malawana told Maverick Citizen, “I… went to public schools and I struggled with menstruation and getting information… so I have a lived experience. I understand how embarrassing it can be when you start menstruating at school. A friend of mine started having her period in class and there was blood everywhere. Everyone was panicking and didn’t know what to do.”
Malawana says her organisation is working with girl and boy learners, teachers, parents and school governing bodies to ensure learners are empowered with the necessary information regarding menstruation as well as having access to sanitary hygiene materials.
She said during their research they realised parents do not speak to their children about menstruation, making it difficult for children to get accurate information about what is happening with their bodies.
Malawana said some parents don’t buy sanitary pads because of the price — parents often had to choose between buying food or sanitary pads.
When it came to having menstruation in the curriculum, Malawana said that while it was part of Life Orientation, teachers, especially male teachers often rushed through the section.
“We want to learn from how Scotland got it right because they give out free menstrual products. We want these products to be freely available just like condoms.”
She said the departments of basic education; health; women, children and people living with disabilities; and social development needed to work together, for learners to feel supported with information, and for the elimination of the stigma around menstrual issues and access to affordable menstrual products.
“I also know how to sew sanitary pads and intend to teach learners how to do it,” Malawana said.
“We want people, especially old-fashioned people, to know that menstruation is normal, we don’t want to feel ashamed about it,” 15-year-old Kekana stressed.
According to secondary school learner Mateus, “Schools need to be more creative in how they teach us about menstruation and well as provide pads on a monthly basis.” DM/MC