Namibia: Period poverty a reality in Dordabis

Namibia: Period poverty a reality in Dordabis

Date: September 18, 2019
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By Linea Dishena

WHILE her classmates are listening to the teacher during a lesson or discussing the ins and outs of Grade 7 schoolwork, *Eveline whiles away the hours at the hostel.

She is not sick. In fact, she is a healthy 13-year-old girl who is experiencing something many girls her age experience every month – her period.

The problem is that Eveline, like many other girls her age, does not have enough money for sanitary products to get through the few days while she is menstruating, and she is forced to stay out of school.

Eveline, who attends Dordabis Primary School, recently told Nampa many other girls miss school while they are menstruating for the same reason.

“We are in the hostel here. Most of the time my mother can only afford to buy one pack of sanitary pads, which I have to use for three months because once it is done, that’s it,” she said.

To try and get as much use as possible out of the one pack, she tries to use only two pads per month. Periods can last between three and seven days and most girls need to change their pad, tampon, or menstrual cup about three to six times a day.

When her flow is heavy, Eveline would rather forego attending school as she is scared she will stain her uniform.

At her school, 80 kilometres east of Windhoek, many other girls suffer the same fate.

Some cut up old clothes which they fold instead of pads or tampons as the sanitary products are simply unaffordable for them. Others fold toilet paper and use these as makeshift pads, but it hardly gets them through the day.

Another girl from Dordabis, 17-year-old Charlotte, who failed Grade 10, told Nampa that pads are a luxury for many girls where she is from, making what is a normal biological process a fraught experience for them.

“Using alternative materials during menstruation is depressing,” she said.

Shockingly, Charlotte said the only way some girls can get money to buy pads is by dating older men.

“My grandmother’s N$1 200 pension can only cater for food in the house. Buying pads is not even in that budget,” she said.

In May this year in the National Assembly, gender equality and child welfare minister Doreen Sioka said only 17% of girls living in rural areas have access to improved sanitary services.

At Dordabis, a poverty-stricken area where most young girls depend on their grandparents’ pension grant, this is definitely a reality. The lack of access to sanitary products is a huge concern as it, among other things, interferes with their school attendance.

Kamunashoni Ekandjo, a teacher at Dordabis Primary School, said most parents send their children to the hostel without sanitary products as many cannot afford them.

“I always have pads in my handbag to help the girls, but the next day you will see that this same girl is not at school because they don’t have pads,” she said.

Ekandjo suggested that schools, especially those in rural and semi-urban areas, should start raising funds for sanitary products.

Khomas governor Laura McLeod-Katjirua on World Menstruation Day in May this year said one in 10 girls in Namibia skip school every month or drop out completely because of a lack of sanitary products.

Elsewhere in the world, ‘period poverty’ activism has led to changes such as the provision of free sanitary products in secondary schools (the United Kingdom) and pads being zero rated (South Africa).

South Africa has joined a growing number of countries that exempt pads from Value Added Tax (VAT), effective 1 April 2019.

The announcement was applauded as the cost of personal care products is a heavy burden for many women.

Period poverty, which refers to a lack of access to sanitary products due to financial constraints, is one of the main reasons for girls missing school.

According to a 2014 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) report, one in 10 girls in sub-Saharan Africa misses school when they are on their period.

In Namibia, Women’s Action for Development executive director, Salatiel Shinedima has called for certain items such as sanitary products to be exempted from VAT in order to help low-income households.

It, however, seems that relief is still far away for Namibian girls, because as recently as 2016, female parliamentarians shied away from talking about menstruation when the provision of feminine hygiene products to needy school girls was raised in the National Assembly.

The motion was tabled by Popular Democratic Movement president McHenry Venaani, who said bringing such a motion to the NA is important to remind those who consider the issue a taboo that all matters that require developmental intervention are “the issues of MPs”.

Female MPs were, however, not keen on discussing the matter.

“I am embarrassed to discuss menstruation in parliament,” said deputy speaker of the National Assembly Loide Kasingo, who was the first woman to contribute to the debate.

Deputy gender equality and child welfare minister, Lucia Witbooi also tried to silence the debate by saying the ministry has programmes in place whereby free sanitary pads are provided to some schools. She could, however, not say which schools benefit from the programme, only saying that it just needs to be strengthened.

For two weeks now, attempts by this agency to get comment from the ministry to find out if they have a programme in place to address the shortage of sanitary pads among rural girls, have been futile.

Last week Tuesday, gender equality and child welfare minister Doreen Sioka declined to comment when approached by Nampa.

“I cannot comment on that, I am busy,” she said.

On the contrary, prime minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila also stated that she did not see the need for such a debate to be held in the NA if such a programme is in place.

On the positive note, there have been a number of donations of sanitary products by private companies and even individuals to schools. At the very least, their public gestures are helping to make menstruation less of a taboo. Perhaps some day, the generations that come after *Eveline and *Charlotte will be able to say they could get the most out of their school careers because the right people spoke up. * Not their real names.

– Nampa

Linea Dishena is a jouralist at NAMPA. This article follows GL media training on Reporting SRHR in Southern Africa. It first appeared in the Namibian Era.

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