Menstrual Hygiene: Comfort, Dignity and a Health Issue Concern

women rights education
Wednesday, 7 October, 2015 - 12:37

Africa should work towards creating an environment in which girls and boys have equal access to education

The United Nations General Assembly has just adopted the Sustainable Development Goals. These go beyond demanding equal rights to education for girls and boys. They also demand equal participation and completion rates.

I was particular struck by a discussion on a television programme, Sunday Live on 16 August 2015. In the programme there was a representative from the Ministry of Education whose stance is that as a department they cannot deny or confirm these reports largely due to the fact that they have not carried out any research on the subject.

I am for research-based evidence myself, but I must point out that a video clip aired at the start of the programme showed a young girl who actually said that she has had to miss school herself due to lack of sanitary pads. I have personally seen firsthand accounts of young girls in the news saying that they have had to miss school due to lack of proper sanitary towels. So yes, there is evidence to that effect albeit anecdotal.

According to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol 2015 Health Barometer a woman's educational status has an impact on whether a delivery is assisted by a health professional and whether the birth is delivered at a health facility, a case in point is Malawi with 63 percent of births at health facilities recorded to mothers with no education compared to 81 percent of mothers with secondary education.

The government set to achieve a 100 percent completion of primary education by both boys and girls and a ratio of 1:1 in primary, secondary and tertiary institutions. While acknowledging the role that government has done in improving the lives of South African women and girls since post-apartheid, I argue that the provision of hygienic and comfortable forms of sanitary ware is another way that government can ensure that more girls remain in school.

The provision of proper sanitary ware is not only a matter of comfort and dignity but it is a health issue too. Studies have shown a link between poor sanitary health, cervical cancer and other reproductive health challenges. Women who practice unhygienic practices are also vulnerable to infertility.

The use of old clothes and rags increases the susceptibility to urinary tract infections (UTI) and the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) which causes cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is the most prevalent cancer in women in developing countries and the cancer that causes the most mortality among South African women. Given the far reaching implications of poor menstrual hygiene, it does not make any difference to me whether it's one or two girls who miss out on school due to lack of sanitary pads because even one is one too many.

Promoting gender equality and empowering women is core to sustainable development as outlined in the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development and Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 4. Education remains the fundamental platform for meeting most of the Post 2015 SDG goals, particularly Goal 8 but is one of the most fundamental instruments to freedom. Renowned Nobel Peace prize winner, Amartya Sen, sets literacy at the intersection of the institutional and the personal, the powerful and the powerless, the marginalised and the mainstream, the male and the female.

As contained in SDG 4, an educated society is more likely to bring about a reduction in poverty, unemployment and want, and increase the overall standard of living of the population. Furthermore, education provides a firm foundation for life-long learning and skills acquisition.

Education is of particular importance for women, as it provides them with the necessary means and capacity to take leadership positions and enhances their scope for more equitable participation in decision-making processes. In short, education is a multiplier which enhances live chances. It enables women to make more strategic choices around employment, sexual and reproductive health amongst other aspects. Therefore, the provision of universal education of women and gender empowerment are interrelated and should be seen as inalienable rights.

The provision of sanitary towels to girls coming from marginalised backgrounds should also be looked at broadly; it is an issue of poverty which disproportionately affects women and girls as well the intersection between poverty and HIV/AIDS thereof.

  • Sehlaphi ‘Dawu' Sibanda is a media researcher and Consultant based in Johannesburg. This article is part of the GL News Service that offers fresh views on every day news.

 Photo Courtesy: Fincon.

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