When my menstrual cycle started I was 12 years old, I was terrified. I thought I had done something wrong and was being punished. I hid in the bathroom in fear of what my mother would think. Luckily, all my fears disappeared when my mother explained what I was going through. She taught me how to take care of myself during menstruation and bought me some sanitary pads…
I took my transition into womanhood for granted until last month when for the first time I was exposed to the harsh realities of what many young girls from impoverished backgrounds go through when they menstruate. I travelled to Nina Khulu Primary School in Phalaborwa in South Africa’s Limpopo province to present a donation to the school. Staff based at the Management Sciences for Health’s (MSH) regional office in South Africa donated towards plates for the children and Subz washable and re-useable sanitary pads for the adolescent girls.
Walking and driving through the dusty village of Humulani where the school is located, I began to appreciate that as a city and township-raised girl, I was never really exposed to the hardships that the young girls at Nina Khulu Primary School face daily. Despite their obvious challenges, we were greeted by a wonderful song of praise and beautiful smiles from about 180 young girls aged between nine and twelve years.
Many of these young girls come from impoverished backgrounds; some are part of migrant families from southern African countries such as Mozambique, while others are orphans heading households. I cannot begin to imagine being responsible for a household at the age of 12. The principal of the school, Mrs Sibiya, told us that for most girls, choices are made between food and basic necessities, “either we eat tonight or we buy your [sanitary] pads…” In some households, it is considered taboo to talk about menstruation and sexual reproductive health. Most young girls learn from their friends at school, often too late.
Mrs Sibiya also shared that it was easy to see when girls were menstruating at the school because she would find soiled tissue paper, socks, and newspapers in the girls’ bathroom. I dread to think about the unhygienic usage of a tissue paper, or the effects of chemicals from a newspaper on a woman’s reproductive health.
The challenges are many for the girl child during menstruation. The principal also said some girls skip school, do not participate in sports, or would be too embarrassed to sit next to another learner due to the fear that she might spoil her uniform. Principal Sibiya has been pro-active: she buys disposable sanitary pads and gives them to the teachers to share with girls in need. Although it is a great effort, it is not sustainable.
I began to appreciate the importance of MSH’s gesture of kindness. The re-useable sanitary pads we donated to the school comes in a pack made up of three panties, nine re-usable sanitary pads, and nine plastic bags for storage. The pads can be used for up to five years.
I never appreciated a sanitary pad until I saw how these young girls looked, touched, and even smelled it. The excitement in their eyes was humbling and made me appreciate that yes, I have been lucky!
In my view, providing each girl child with a pack of these re-useable sanitary pads will go a long way in ensuring that they get a better education. It will enable them to attend school consistently, participate more in sport, and generally improve their sense of self-worth, contributing to breaking the cycle of poverty and ensuring a better life in the long term.