Zero rating on sanitary towels should inspire further out-of-the-box thinking

Many girls around the country are missing school because they dont have access to sanitary towels. Cindy Waxa African News Agency (ANA)

In Africa, the female members of some households are often forced to choose between a loaf of bread or a pack of sanitary towels. The question of whether to satiate a grumbling stomach or purchase feminine hygiene products is common amongst many struggling households, says non-profit organisation Sonke Gender Justice. According to the NPO, when households are faced with this decision, more often than not, the stomach wins.

Desperate for a way to manage this biological occurrence, many young women, some as young as 12, are forced to use newspapers, leaves, grass, bark or old clothes instead of sanitary towels.

This becomes a period synonymous with great humiliation and frustration. Humiliated when they get blood on their clothes, many opt to stay home during their menstruation, missing out on valuable classroom time. Media reports reveal that these girls often abandon their schooling out of sheer frustration.

The situation is dire the world over. On a global scale, advocacy group Global Citizens revealed that girls are less likely to graduate from school than boys, this mostly attributed to their monthly cycle. The group estimates that one in 10 girls in Africa miss out on school because of their menses each year.

Closer to home, research conducted by the Stellenbosch University Law Clinic released earlier this year revealed that about 30% of South African girls do not attend school when they are menstruating because they cannot afford sanitary products.

A beacon of hope for this plight was offered by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni in his maiden medium-term budget statement, when he announced that learners in all schools will have access to sanitary towels. He further announced the removal of VAT from non-luxury items such as sanitary towels, effective from April 1, 2019.

Ahead of the medium-term budget speech, the call from women’s rights groups and human rights activists to have sanitary items zero-rated was deafening. Adding its name to a petition joined by more than 3 000 South Africans was Valued Citizens Initiative (VCI). 

Following the announcement, we hailed the move as a victory, adding that the lives of thousands of learners will be changed as their dignity is restored. We placed particular emphasis on female learners from child-headed families, saying this assistance would prove invaluable to their monthly expenditure. Despite this victory, education lobby group Equal Education (EE) remains apprehensive.

In a statement following the announcement, EE highlighted that the Department of Women has developed a framework to provide free sanitary towels to learners from low-income households, funded through increases to the provincial equitable share. However, they note that the announcement is misleading as the allocations to the equitable share are not ring-fenced, meaning there is no guarantee that such funds will be used specifically for sanitary towels.

Similarly, a 2016 initiative headed by the Gauteng Department of Social Development, which pledged more than R315 million for the distribution of one million “dignity packs”, containing sanitary pads and other hygiene items, made little difference. Results show that the initiative under-performed, with only 18% of no-fee schools actually receiving these packs, translating to only 8% of girls between the ages of 12 to 18 benefiting. A solution could now lie in seeking alternative methods to handle menstruation.

The Siyahluma research team project established in 2013 – formed from a partnership between Rhodes University Community Engagement (RUCE), the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics and the Critical Studies in Sexualities and Reproduction Research Unit– assessed approximately 1 100 learners in 24 schools across the Eastern Cape. The aim was to study the effects of the stigma of menstruation in their communities as well as the lack of information on this biological issue. The study resulted in the implementation of prolonged initiatives to counteract the lack of access to menstrual products. 

The most successful was started in 2014 by a group of five foster mothers from Grahamstown Child Welfare Services. They approached the research group with the idea of making re-usable sanitary products: flannel liners made of reliable and washable materials. The kits, either handed out free of charge or at a minimal cost to deserving recipients, contain eight liners folded into three. When used, the liners are held in place by two moisture-barrier shields which also stop leaks. A small sealable plastic bag holds the soiled items with a drawstring bag provided for storage. The kits were distributed to local schools within Grahamstown.

In their campaign to change the plight of thousands of women and girls across the country who have no access to menstrual care products, perhaps women’s rights and human rights advocacy groups should turn the conversation around. Instead of calling for hand-outs from government, they should be asking for tools to rectify this issue as well – which could prove more sustainable in the long run. This could not only restore the dignity to these young women, but could create jobs for them too, giving truth to the old adage: “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach a man how to fish and feed him for a lifetime.”

At Valued Citizens Initiative, we believe that government still has a role to play. In the short term it needs to assess the family situation before providing solutions. There is an exorbitant number of child-headed households that simply rely on income from government grant to stay afloat. These children, most times female, have to support their personal needs and those of their siblings from this grant, forcing them to grow up faster than they should, manage a home as well attain an education. If government were to think out of the box, we would suggest that it is time they loaded a Care Card to assist such children to buy monthly essentials such as sanitary towels which would grant them leave to use the social grant from government for other household needs.


Carole Podetti-Ngono is the founder and managing director of Valued Citizens Initiative, an NGO founded in 2001 answering a request by the Gauteng Department of Education to develop citizenship education in public schools.