The neglect of women’s sexual and reproductive health is pervasive. Women continue to suffer discrimination in health related issues like menstruation. It is important to note that lack of access to sanitary towels not only has adverse effects on school attendance but it also has ripple effects on the economic development of communities and countries as a whole. It is not just the girls and women who benefit from having proper menstrual hygiene, the broader society and national economies can profit from better menstruation management. Therefore, women’s sexual and reproductive health are not just women’s issues but are societal issues.
Reaching puberty is an inevitable part of life and one of the changes that females undergo at this stage is menstruation. Menstruation is a particularly salient issue because it has a more pronounced effect on the quality and enjoyment of fundamental human rights by women and adolescent girls than do other aspects of puberty. The harsh reality is that disposable sanitary products are prohibitively unaffordable for many girls and women, making it difficult to maintain good menstrual hygiene. Together, these constraints may result in women and girls being denied basic human rights.
The human rights framework provides the possibility of ensuring that a culture of equal worth and dignity of all human beings is fostered and the principle of non-discrimination, the right to health and freedom of choice, is respected. However, the restrictions imposed by the lack of menstrual hygiene products raises a number of human rights concerns. There is a violation of several socio economic rights, and most importantly, of the right to human dignity, equality, bodily integrity, reproductive health care and education because these rights are implicated by menstrual hygiene.
There is a need to address barriers to education that are particular to a biological gender. Women and Girls’ education is critically important, not only for harnessing the nation’s human resources for development, but also for raising their self-esteem and confidence. Girls and women are deprived of receiving education and this is not on the same grounds as their male counterparts. The grave lack of appropriate sanitary towels can push menstruating girls out of school, which results in absenteeism and increased dropout rates. Statistical research by the United Nations confirms that 1 in 10 girls in Africa miss school during menstruation, which is an appalling reality.
The lack of menstrual hygiene products inflicts indignity upon millions of women and girls. They continue to experience a menstrual cycle with no clean materials to manage the period in a dignified manner. There is no dignity without basic necessities such as sanitary napkins. This perpetuates a culture of silence that forces many to cope in isolation.
Lastly, the right of sexual and reproductive health care translates to women and girls being able to identify their own health needs, to access appropriate health technologies, and to effectively manage their health conditions including seeking health services and professional help when necessary. This right is affected when the appropriate menstrual hygiene products are not provided. There is multiple health risks associated with the use of unhygienic products during menstruation. Poor management of menstrual hygiene can lead to increased susceptibility to infections, bad odour of menstrual blood due to infrequent change of cloths, a painful period and discomfort.
International human rights law also makes provision for the better management of menstruation. Sexual and reproductive health issues are currently featured on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal’s (SDG’s), agenda. SDG 4 provides as follows: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” Also, SDG 5 is outlined as follows: “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” These sustainable development goals cannot be achieved if this situation persists.
There is light at the end of the tunnel. South Africa’s Minister of Tourism, Derek Hanekom, highlighted and emphasized the importance of doing away with tax imposed on sanitary pads and advocated for the access to free sanitary pads in the near future. Minister of Finance, Tito Mboweni, on the 24th October 2018, when he presented his medium term budget policy statement, announced that consumers will also no longer pay VAT on sanitary pads.
Government’s announcement of the removal of Value Added Tax on these products can perhaps be viewed as a turning point in the political dispensation and an indication of efforts by the government to make sanitary products in the country more affordable and accessible. The scope of reproductive rights needs to be broadened to include free access to sanitary towels just as condoms are. South Africa should follow in the footsteps of countries like Kenya where the government has enacted a bill authorising free supply of sanitary pads to teenage girls across all public schools in the country.
As highlighted above, menstruation is a driver of gender inequality and disempowerment as it poses barriers in a woman’s ability to engage in education, the work environment and the enjoyment of guaranteed rights such as reproductive health rights, sanitation, equality and dignity. All women and girls have a right to enjoy their periods with dignity, free of shame and without discrimination. Menstruation with dignity and nondiscrimination is a driver and an enabling factor for change as it enables women and girls to fully participate in society. If we are to claim to be a Constitutional democracy, founded on principles such as equality and dignity, women’s issues should thus be given equal importance. This can be done firstly by ensuring that poor women and girls have free access to menstrual hygiene products and that the draft sanitary dignity framework is actually implemented throughout the country.
Bongani Majola is the Chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission.