The #HappyFlow Campaign
Do you remember your first period? Are your memories good or bad?
A bloodstain on the clothes is every menstruating girl’s worst nightmare, and if you are a young girl growing up with no access to sanitary pads, period days are anything but fun. Girls who cannot afford sanitary products end up missing days of school because of this – and it affects their performance in the long run.
Menstruation marks the beginning of womanhood, an important transition in a girl’s life. This is the moment when a girl’s emotions are most fragile and being laughed at by your peers in class because you are ‘unhygienic’, or your clothes are stained, can be very traumatic. The labels and stereotypes imposed on an adolescent girl can wreck her emotionally, even scar her for life. For many girls in rural areas and low-income communities, who cannot afford sanitary wear, when they have their periods, they become restless and anxious about any accidents.
Sanitary wear is considered as a luxury not a necessity, and this is reflected in governments’ taxes for this commodity. As a result, the burden of the high cost falls on girls themselves. It costs about 4 dollars every month for decent sanitary pads. This amount is too high for most impoverished families in Southern Africa. Many stories have been told of girls who go without food or even engage in transactional sex so that they can raise money for sanitary wear in order to maintain their dignity. This desperation renders girls vulnerable to sexual abuse, teenage pregnancies and even HIV infections.
Menstruation is a matter of human rights and dignity. It is inextricably linked to girls’ ability to access their other rights, such as education. According to SNV, a Dutch development agency operating in Zimbabwe, about 72% of rural primary school girls do not use sanitary pads when they menstruate. This impacts not only on their right to education but also their right to health, to gender equality and dignity more broadly.
Although girls and women sometimes find resourceful ways to improvise sanitary pads, some of the materials they use have limited absorbency. Out of desperation, girls will use a variety of items they come across in the home, including tissue paper, newspapers, leaves, rags, even cow dung. Imagine having to deal with the discomfort of moving around with a newspaper between your thighs. These items may pose health risks such as irritations and vaginal infections.
Why advocate for free sanitary wear in schools?
Our governments should recognise sanitary wear as a basic need for the simple reason that education has proven benefits for the health and development of girls, their families and society.
It is important that countries in SADC demonstrate that they prioritise Girls’ Education, wellness and dignity by supporting the provision of free sanitary wear in schools and in public areas. Keeping Girls in School is a critical pillar in many SADC agendas, including:
- The agenda on Ending Child Marriage (avoiding school drop outs by girls who miss days of school as a result of lack of sanitary wear);
- Reducing new HIV infections among teenage girls (Out of desperation, some young girls from poor families are forced to sell sex to raise money for sanitary wear so that they can avoid the shame and embarrassment of staining their uniforms at school)
- Ending teenage pregnancies (young girls engaging in transactional sex for survival often get unwanted pregnancies because the same system that is unresponsive to their menstrual hygiene needs is also not ready to educate girls about their bodies and sexuality).
Katswe Sistahood Zimbabwe is building collective power and voice through Pepeta Africa, an online community of young female SRHR activists from Zimbabwe, Zambia, DRC, and Malawi. It is a platform that enables young women to take leadership, find their agency, mobilise, organise and articulate their needs and aspirations in respect of SRH education, SRH services and legal protection, and to communicate these to policy-makers and implementers.
In August 2016, Pepeta Africa launched the #Happy Flow Campaign. Its intention is to mobilise at least 4000 SRHR Champions from SADC to reflect and initiate local and regional dialogue on school girls, poverty and menstrual hygiene products. The Campaign, which will coordinate youth SRHR activists from SADC online, will invite Parliamentarians in SADC countries to sign on to the Call for Action. The call asks them to pledge to recognise menstrual hygiene products as a basic need, which should be provided free, especially in schools.
Katswe Sistahood has been awarded a grant from the Regional SRHR Fund to develop and run its #HappyFlow campaign. The Fund is supported by the Ford Foundation and Hivos Southern Africa.