Fight to keep young girls at school

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Entering womanhood should be a time of joy and natural development. Unfortunately too many young girls face this phase of their lives in shame and pain as they have no idea what is happening to their bodies, writes Gabi Khumalo.

According to research, girls who cannot afford sanitary products miss approximately five days of school a month during their monthly cycles, and this amounts to 60 missed school days.

The lack of affordable sanitary products for girls and young women places them at a disadvantage in terms of education when they are young and prevents their mobility and productivity as young women.

Without sanitary products, girls are excluded from their right to education as stipulated by the Constitution of South Africa.

This was among the startling reasons that Dignity Dreams was born, a non-profit organisation that provides washable, reusable sanitary towels to girls, especially in rural areas. This helps to keep them at school during their monthly menstruation.

Speaking to SAnews, founder of Dignity Dreams, Sandra Miller says the idea of Dignity Dreams came about in 2013 when she was doing a fundraising in White River, Mpumalanga. She met 20 girls aged between 10 and 12 with an aim of getting a better understanding of their needs.

“They want to become doctors, lawyers, engineers etc. To them their poverty was not going to prevent them from dreaming big. When I asked them to tell me about their boyfriends, I expected fairly innocent responses and was heartbroken when I heard about their sexual experiences, which borders on abuse.

“I then asked if they prefer sanitary towels or tampons, but not one girl had ever seen a sanitary towel or tampon, they use socks, rags, old towels and even school notebook paper.  I was determined to solve this problem and hence Dignity Dreams was born,” Miller recalls.

Dignity Dreams Nelson Mandela Day Campaign

As part of the Mandela Day campaign, the Dignity Dreams, supported by the Nelson Mandela Foundation launched a campaign in May, where they set a goal of securing funding and distributing 18 000 dignity packs to underprivileged girls in rural schools.

The products are South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) approved and require minimal water for washing. Unlike disposable sanitary pads, the reusable pads can last for a period of five years and they are also designed to promote environmental sustainability.

The campaign is supported by the Office of the Deputy Minister in the Presidency for Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, Buti Manamela, the National Youth Development Agency, as well as various corporates and the general public.

Miller says making corporate South Africa and the general public aware of the problem and the fact that reusable sanitary towels is a hygienic, environmentally friendly and cheaper alternative was very tough.

“It’s a problem that many people are unaware of and feel uncomfortable talking about. For this reason we had our pads’ absorbency SABS approved – and that’s how we slowly got ‘buy-in’ from corporates, foundations, trusts and the public,” says Miller.

She notes that disposable sanitary towels do not solve the problem as they can only be used once and also clog up toilets and landfills, while the Dignity Dreams packs last up to five years.

She is also confident that they will reach their target by the end of July as they’ve worked very hard to raise awareness.

By 9 July, enough money had been raised for about 14 000 products.

“We eventually felt that we are making a real breakthrough. We have no doubt that we will reach our target by the end of July and then we must work hard to keep the momentum going because there are over four million primary school girls who have never, ever had sanitary towels.”

Girls at risk

Apart from handing out feminine packs, the Dignity Dreams team also give talks to young girls about menstrual health. They go with a social worker, who can spot ‘girls at risk’ and do a proper professional intervention.

“Many fall pregnant because they don’t know they are fertile once their periods start.”

The team is prepared to work hard to ensure that at least 500 000 girls receive Dignity Dreams packs every year.

“We have also given 15 previously unemployed women the opportunity to run their own micro-businesses. We pay them for every pad they sew,” adds Miller.

Deputy Minister Manamela says when he met Miller and Dignity Dreams team, he learned about the valuable work that the organisation was doing.

“I visited the facility where the dignity packs are manufactured and also participated in events where the dignity packs were distributed to young girls in schools.

Not a women issue alone

Deputy Minister Manamela says he was often asked why he was addressing a “women issue” as a young man.

“Brushing aside the stereotypes associated with the question, I have repeatedly pointed out that this is not a ‘women issue’, it’s an education issue as well as a key global development issue. Every girl in South Africa deserves access to safe and hygienic sanitary products.

“Our goal is to help girls and young women reclaim the dignity that poverty denies them and enable them to make a lasting and positive impact on the communities they live in and society as a whole,” he says.

Deputy Minister Manamela believes having access to hygienic sanitary products, young girls will be able to complete high school, will be less likely to get HIV and Aids or fall pregnant before 18 and will likely earn higher wages and successfully educate their own children.

He appeals to corporate South Africa, civil society and individuals to put heads, hands and hearts together by supporting Dignity Dreams in their Nelson Mandela campaign to raise funds to distribute 18 000 dignity packs.

“Let’s keep our young women in school. Your support is needed, every bit helps, let’s play our part.”

NYDA Chairperson, Yershen Pillay says: “When you are a young girl, missing out on quality time is not a small issue. We have to play a role in creating awareness and ensure that young girls are in school”.

The NYDA recently sponsored R200 000 towards the goal of 18 000 dignity packs. The amount will assist to purchase 1 430 sanitary towels.

Ways that people can donate, by credit card or EFT (details on Dignity Dreams website) or sms “DIGNITY” to 40287 – R20.00 donation.

They can also visit the Dignity Dreams Office at 36 Florence Road, Colbyn, Pretoria. –