Period no longer a full stop in girls' education

Monday, May 28, 2018

Government is gearing up to introduce a programme that will see to the needs of girl learners from disadvantaged schools so they don’t have to miss classes due to their period.

“… This initiative seeks to reduce the number of [missed school] days, which sometimes results in girls dropping out of school because their families cannot afford sanitary pads,” the Minister of Women in the Presidency, Bathabile Dlamini, said on Monday.

The sanitary dignity pilot programme will primarily target girls in quintile 1 – 3 schools, which are among the poorest schools in the country.

Dlamini made the announcement during a symposium on Menstrual Health Management in East and Southern Africa, currently underway in Johannesburg.


The first ever symposium of this kind, which is co-hosted by the Department of Women and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), brings together about 200 representatives from national governments, academics institutions, non-governmental organisations, donors, United Nations agencies and private sector organisations.

The two-day symposium aims to change the narrative, break down taboos and build positive social norms around menstruation.

Pushing for VAT free pads

Addressing the opening of the symposium, Dlamini said government has made a submission to National Treasury to review the list of items that are zero-rated for Value Added Tax (VAT), which was recently increased to 15%.

“This increase has brought an additional financial burden that women and girls will continue to face for no fault of their own, but for being born female. Our contention is that sanitary dignity products must be VAT free.

“This is part of a gender planning and responsive budgeting process that we have been advocating for many years. Menstrual health products are not a luxury because menstruation is not an option but a necessity for many women and girls in our country and our continent,” Dlamini said.

She said that the symposium provides an opportunity to gradually push for the call for the zero-rating of menstrual health products for women and girls not only in South Africa but across the region and the continent.

“Commercial interests and the collection of national revenue cannot trump the human rights of half of the continent’s population. We know that sister countries in the continent such as Kenya and Botswana are far ahead in the process of providing free sanitary pads to school-going children, and we look forward to learning from them during the symposium.

“I believe that the deliberations and outcomes of this symposium will go a long way to breaking the shackles around menstrual health management, as the issue rarely gets disc in public or in private,” the Minister said.

The Minister also emphasised the need to empower young girls to know that menstruation is not something to be ashamed of.

‘’We must empower them to embrace and celebrate their femininity. It is time that we talk openly about #StopPeriodShaming in our homes, schools, places of worship and all other important spaces in our lives,” said Dlamini.

UNFPA Regional Director, Dr Julitta Onabanjo, said in the 15 and 50 year-old female population globally, about eight million women and girls are on their period per day.

“Menstruation is fundamental to sexual reproduction health. If we want Noah’s arch to go far, we need all hands to go on deck,” Onabanjo said.

Restoring dignity through sanitation 

In her presentation titled ‘Menstrual Hygiene: Addressing vaginal bleeding throughout the life course in low and middle-income countries’, Dr Marni Sommer from Mailman School of Public Health (Columbia University) estimated that 5% - 15% of women of reproductive age globally have abnormal uterine bleeding.

Sommer said clean and accessible facilities provide privacy to manage bleeding, including for washing, changing material and disposal.

Globally, about 2.4 billion people lack access to decent sanitation. This includes the estimated 800 million girls and women who menstruate, said Sommer.

Sommer recommended that governments develop policies and strategic plans with guidelines to improve access to sanitation.

South African actress Hlubi Mboya was part of the day’s proceedings.

“I’m 40 years old and still to this day, there are things that I don’t want to admit about menstruation, and there are places that I don’t feel comfortable speaking about menstruation. I’m here to be educated. I’m here to be motivated. I’m here to be engaged and I’m here to change the game.” –