Sanitary wear nightmare

HARARE - Condoms are subsidised and this should also apply to sanitary wear, this is the new war cry by Zimbabwe’s poverty-stricken young girls.

Struggling with high sanitary wear prices, many girls are faced with questions like ‘‘Should I miss school? Do I stay at home?’

These are choices no girl should have to make.

Men have the options to buy seemingly expensive Carex or Durex condoms starting from $3.

Those with thinner pockets can grab the much cheaper Protector Plus or even get them for free from hotels and health institutions.

The limited options for menstrual hygiene make it difficult for girls to participate in school during their periods, despite the proven benefits education can have for the health and development of girls, their families, and society.

Rags, old towels, leaves, grass, school notebook paper and even cow dung are some of the options some girls are resorting to.

The cost of sanitary products and access has left women and girls facing serious health risks in Zimbabwe.
This basic commodity costs at least $2, for one to buy a packet of cheap sanitary towels; a box of tampons comes in at a minimum of $3.

For young women it is an almost impossible cost.

When a family is barely able to put food on the table, sanitary wear is the last priority in the household.

Some girls have resorted to transitional sex to buy sanitary wear.

One of the girls who identified herself as Danai, a student at a local university, said cotton sanitary pads should come free.

“Latex is more expensive,” she said.

Another girl, Rumbie, uses tissues and rags for her menses and says she has had serious bacterial infections as a result.

“I dread going on my periods because it is such an uncomfortable progress. Using tissues is the worst experience because when the tissue gets soaked it sort of gets stuck in unseen areas,” she said.

“Rags sometimes over flows on to the underwear and I spoil myself, when my flow is heavy, it is just uncomfortable,” said the 15-year-old.

An estimated two percent of women in rural areas use sanitary towels; the vast majority use unhygienic cow dung to deal with their periods.

Health expert, Elliot Manase, said such unhygienic items can cause infections in the uterus leading to pelvis and urinary tract infections.

“Unhygienic practices could lead to ascending infections — bacteria entering the urinary tract or uterus from outside and this could be one of the contributing factors of the high numbers of women surviving from cervical cancer,” said Manase.

Recent surveys by the Integrated Sustainable Livelihoods have shown that thousands of young girls miss up to 24 weeks of school because of their inability to control their menstrual flow — the reason being lack of access to affordable and healthy sanitary wear.

The issue of sanitary pads has always been debatable and last year women set up a petition and marched to Parliament calling on government leaders to act on their appeals for dignity.  

The women wanted the 2012 national budget to make provisions for towels and tampons to be made available for free in schools and at community centres or, at the minimum a plan to subsidise the products.

In Zimbabwe, women outnumber men, yet their pleas often fall on deaf and unsympathetic ears.

Finance minister Tendai Biti is reported to have remarked that taxing sanitary ware was necessary due to low cotton prices.
Due to low capacity utilisation in the manufacturing sector, many companies have not been finding it easy to venture into manufacturing following Zimbabwe’s economic decline.

Gender activists said that such issues should be addressed through gender sensitive budgeting in the fiscus. There is a call from women to scrap taxation on sanitary products to make it more affordable to under-privileged young women.

 In 2006, women spearheaded the ‘‘Dignity Period’’ Campaign resulting in sanitary products from well-wishers outside Zimbabwe being sent into the country for distribution.  

But this campaign has slowed down considerably.

More recently Cyan International funded a programme for women to make their own reusable sanitary towels.

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