Period poverty ruins education for girls in rural Zimbabwe

The cost of feminine hygiene products in Zimbabwe has pushed them beyond the reach of many poor households. Photo by Dylan Murambgi

A recent survey revealed that the use of old clothes, leaves and cow dung instead of sanitary ware is prevalent among rural girls in Zimbabwe.

Menstruation is a nightmare for many girls and young women in Zimbabwe. Besides the pain, many young girls find sanitary ware hard to get. This has left many finding themselves in embarrassing situations where they soil their garments in public, which demeans their dignity and self-esteem.

Many families in rural Zimbabwe survive on a dollar or less a day, making things like sanitary pads a luxury they cannot afford.

For Chenai Dzvairo*, a Grade 7 pupil at Mwanza Primary School in Bora, Murehwa district, her period is the worst part of each month as she has to endure the pain and anxiety of facing her classmates should the period catch her unawares. “Sometimes it just starts and when you are in school you will only realise after soiling your chair that it has started. It is so embarrassing especially when the male students notice and they start teasing you. No one would want to use the same chair for a long time to come,” she said.

Dzvairo said she mostly depends on old clothes to use as an absorbent. “But then sometimes you find there will be no more torn clothes and you will have to resort to leaves, which you have to select carefully as some of them can be very irritating and uncomfortable. I have personally never used cow dung although some of my colleagues do,“ she said. When the bleeding is too heavy, she has to see through the period at home.

Cow dung is one of the alternatives that girls and women in Zimbabwe use instead of sanitary wear, which many cannot afford. Photo from Pixabay

Dzvairo’s mother said the family cannot afford to buy sanitary pads for her two daughters every month, since they struggle to buy even basics for the home. “We sometimes struggle to raise enough to go to the grinding mill with our maize, so we take this menstrual issue as just a temporary problem that will soon go away. We really would love to buy them pads but the honest truth is that we can’t afford it. For us it is a luxury,” she said.

She said there was nothing wrong with using cow dung as she also used to use it during her days. “We used to also use cow dung growing up and we had no problems and I don’t think it will have any serious challenges now,” she said, unaware of possible dangers this may expose her daughters to.

A rural school head in Marondera district confirmed that many girls missed school due to menstrual challenges, which is especially a problem during examinations. “That is an obvious challenge that we face every month. It is even worse when it is examination time as the girls have to choose between facing the humiliation and continuing with their exams or chickening out of the exams,” said the school head, who spoke on condition of anonymity as the education ministry prohibits staff from speaking to the media.

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Poverty and inaccessibility the biggest challenges

According to a survey by the Girls and Women Empowerment Network Trust, the use of machira (pieces of cloth), leaves and cow dung is prevalent among rural girls and young women. The survey revealed that the level of poverty among rural families is such that many cannot even afford undergarments, let alone sanitary ware. It noted that quite a significant number of rural girls missed school for some days every month as a result of ‘period poverty’.

“At some point we went to donate disposable sanitary pads and one of the girls came to our director, my then boss, saying she did not have the panties even; that’s how we engaged Rooted Love Trust and started donating washable pads and panties too,” said GWEN board member, Sheryl Tendai Chigwedere. “We were working in wards 2, 3 and 7 in a Seke rural area and I was the volunteer programmes officer for Girls and Women Empowerment Network Trust. We would visit the wards and have conversations with the girls, then donate pads afterwards if we had them because we also did not have that much funding for menstrual hygiene,” she said.

Government intervention not enough

In his 2019 national budget, Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Mthuli Ncube, said he was prioritising the integration of gender across all sectors of the economy and had proposed the scrapping of duty and VAT on imported sanitary ware. This has not helped as most retailers failed to import products due to shortages of foreign currency, which they have to source from the black market at very high premiums.

Groups working with underprivileged girls and women argue that homeless girls and women, female prisoners, the disabled and rural girls who do not have any income at all cannot afford even the subsidised sanitary ware.

“There was a time when minister Mthuli Ncube announced that tax on menstrual hygiene products would be scrapped but that did not change anything for us. Besides the products being far-fetched for the disadvantaged, there are conditions that come with menstruation and if one cannot afford a packet of pads going for $1.50, how will they be able to access basic treatment? queried Chigwedere.

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Chigwedere said the need to channel resources to the healthcare system for the benefit of taxpayers is urgent. “We need to stop planning for the next general election and start looking at the next generation. Basic healthcare should not be used as a campaign gimmick but it should be accessible for all in respect of the constitution.”

Because of the high prices of sanitary pads in the country, which now cost between US$1 and US$3 for a packet of 8, a local non-governmental organisation has now embarked on a programme to train disadvantaged girls in rural areas on how to make their own re-usable pads. “Last Saturday we were in Tsholotsho.  We trained 48 girls how to make reusable pads in Ward 7. We want to train as many girls as we can and give them free packs, said Samkeliso Tshuma, founder and director of Girls Table on her Facebook page.

UK assistance for Zimbabwe

The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has, between 2017 and 2022, supported more than five million women and children in Zimbabwe through the Supporting a Resilient Health System (SRHS) programme, funded by the UK to improve access to hygiene and sanitary products for women and girls. The UK Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, Vicky Ford, said the UK has been working closely with the Zimbabwean government to improve the provision of sanitary products in schools since 2012.

In a written response during a question and answer session in parliament, Ford said the UK was working to overcome ‘period poverty’ in Zimbabwe. “Alongside international partners, the UK has funded the Supporting a Resilient Health System programme in Zimbabwe which delivered essential sexual, reproductive, maternal, new-born, child and adolescent health and nutrition services.

“The SRHS programme delivered menstrual health education as part of the Sister2Sister clubs which included supporting sustainable menstrual health options for girls, such as disposable pads, reusable pads, menstrual cups and menstrual underwear,” she said.

She said since 2012, 60,000 girls had been provided with sanitary pads through the UK-supported Zimbabwe Secondary Education (ZGSE) programme.

Regional peers offer free sanitary pads

Zimbabwe’s regional peers, Botswana as well as Kenya, have adopted policies that will see their respective governments offering free sanitary pads. Botswana introduced free pads in 2017, with members of parliament saying this would help improve access to education for girl children and protect their dignity in a country where many cannot afford sanitary products. Kenya introduced a similar programme in the same year, saying it would help improve access to education by girls. Zimbabwe could also take the same route to help restore the dignity of its vulnerable girls and women.

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