Gender Focus with EMELDA MWITWA
WHEN Parliament passed a motion to compel Government to provide free sanitary pads to girls in public schools, I was inspired by the affirmative action towards girls’ education by the law-makers.
This means Zambia will join other countries like Ghana, South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho and Kenya that provide free sanitary towels to girls who can’t afford to buy their own.
Menstrual hygiene is one of the key determinants of girls’ regular attendance of class and good educational attainment. Research has found that apart from household chores and tendering to the sick at home, lack of sanitary pads contributes a lot to the absenteeism of girls in school.
For poor and vulnerable households, buying sanitary towels for their girl children is seen as a luxury, more so because of the competing needs at home such as buying food, paying rentals, medical fees and school fees too.
So in many households, menstrual hygiene is not a basic need, and needy girls have to sort themselves out during that period of the month.
And if one is in school, it’s either they will not attend class for about four to five days in a month for fear of getting humiliated in class among their peers, or they will use unsafe materials in place of sanitary towels.
Research that has been done by organisations found that absenteeism from school due to lack of sanitary towels has a negative effect on class performance of affected girls because it tends to be a regular barrier to attending class.
If a girl comes from a family that cannot afford to spend on sanitary pads, it means she will have to miss class every month. In the long-term, this tends to affect the girl’s morale and makes her feel helpless because menses are a regular thing, yet one has no means to help oneself.
A research that was done in Lusaka by an organisation called IYSO Consultants, found that due to their dedication to school, some girls will recycle unsafe rags during that time of the month just to attend class.
Other girls will opt to use dry leaves, bark of wood, papers from exercise books, sponge of old mattresses and toilet paper to absorb menstrual flow.
In the long-term, the rags, which are usually never properly sanitised nor dried, will put the user’s health at risk.
IYSO Consultants also found that some girls will resort to having affairs with shopkeepers or other men that could give them money to buy such basic necessities as sanitary pads.
The organisation unveiled their findings at a consultative meeting for women that was hosted by former South Africa’s high commissioner to Zambia, Sikose Mji, in 2015.
These findings depict real barriers to education, yet menstrual hygiene is considered a taboo subject and is not to be tabled in a meeting.
Girls can’t even ask their fathers for money for sanitary towels because tradition tells us that menstrual matters can only be discussed woman-to-woman.
While the girls are gagged from discussing menstrual hygiene at domestic level, some of them are going out there soliciting for money from the infamous blessers or sugar daddies to cater for these needs.
In the end, it is the girls that suffer because menstruation is something that affects every woman, yet our tradition forbids girls from discussing it openly with their parents and guardians.
Perhaps, that’s the reason why for a long time this was not a subject of discussion in high-level meetings in Zambia, yet countries like Ghana, Kenya, Botswana, Lesotho and Uganda were distributing free sanitary towels to girls in need in schools.
I am sure it took courage for a man; the Member of Parliament for Chembe, Sebastian Kopulande, to raise a motion in Parliament to compel Government to provide sanitary towels and adequate sanitation facilities for girls in schools.
Mr Kopulande, who represents a rural constituency in Parliament, noted that lack of sanitary pads and adequate sanitation in poor rural areas was reason enough for girls in such communities to stay away from school, and eventually dropping out.
It was good that the motion on a so-called taboo subject was raised on the floor of the House by a man, and he had the support of other parliamentarians, both male and female.
What it means now is that Government needs to come up with a policy that will guide the free distribution of sanitary towels in public schools.
Obviously lessons have already been learned about the free distribution of sanitary towels in schools because, I suppose, the Government is already doing so under the Keeping Girls in School (KGS) initiative, targeting 14, 000 pupils from poor families in 16 districts.
The KGS project, which also comes with scholarships for the target beneficiaries, started in 2016 and will come to an end in 2020.
However, we don’t know when the free distribution of pads would extend to all public schools because the motion was only passed after Finance Minister Bwalya Ng’andu had already presented the national budget for 2020.
If it is not happening next year, this should give Government time to put in place workable measures of how this could be done, perhaps starting from the year 2021.
There are some organisations like Young Women Christian Association (YWCA) that have been producing washable pads. Maybe for a start, these would be more affordable for us.
Re-usable pads, although we have not seen them on the market yet, are said to be cheaper than disposable ones because they can be re-used many times if they are properly sanitised.
If we go by the disposable sanitary towels that I see in retail outlets, I don’t see us succeeding in providing every schoolgirl in need with free sanitary pads. Disposable pads are damn expensive because they are imported and taxed as non-essential goods.
Just a packet of about 10 sanitary towels is fetching about K20, while some even cost more depending on the brand.
In other parts of the world such as Europe, campaigners are actually lobbying their governments not to tax sanitary towels in order to make them affordable to every woman.
They are arguing that sanitary pads and tampons should not be taxed as non-essential luxury goods. Campaigners justify their argument that sanitary products of women should not be taxed because menstrual hygiene is a basic need since menstruation is an innate function of a woman’s body.
They say it is wrong to tax tampons and sanitary towels as non-essential luxury goods because menstruation is not a luxury.
It is rather a biological function of the body that women can’t escape. For this reason, they argue that feminine sanitary products should be tax-free.
Well, that’s not a debate for Zambia for the moment, otherwise the free distribution of sanitary towels to girls in public schools may not start in the near future.
But the bottom line from this debate is that sanitary towels are expensive in any part of the world. Like other commodity prices in Zambia, the prices of feminine sanitation products have gone up in the recent months.
So then, how does Zambia implement this well-intended policy so that it does not just remain on paper? We need to identify what will work for us in the interim. Is it disposable pads or re-usable pads? In my view we could start by producing the washable or re-usable pads locally to make them affordable. We have a lot of small and medium entrepreneurs in the country that could be trained in the making of re-usable sanitary pads locally.
I hope our local entrepreneurs will cease the opportunity to produce sanitary towels in large quantities and supply them to the Government.
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Gender Focus with EMELDA MWITWA