Access to sanitary supplies adds to gender inequality

Date: January 1, 1970
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Almost every woman in the world of reproductive age experiences monthly periods. Yet the subject remains taboo, and for women and girls living in poverty, this natural monthly occurrence becomes another source of disempowerment and embarrassment, further deepening the poverty cycle.

For young girls especially, menstruation can add to the heap of gender disparities they face in life. In sub-Saharan Africa, millions of girls that reach the age of puberty are highly disempowered due to the lack of access to sanitary wear. Many girls from poor families simply cannot afford to buy sanitary pads.
As a result, in order to stem the monthly flow, these women and girls may resort to anything from rags, tree leaves, old clothes, toilet paper, newspapers, cotton wool, cloths or literally anything that can do the job. Some girls from poor, rural communities do not use anything at all.
The use of unhygienic rags and cloths may put them at risk of infections. Some of the girls engage in transactional sex so that they can raise the money required to buy sanitary pads, putting themselves at the risk of HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STI).  
Alternatively, young girls are forced to skip school during the time they experience monthly periods to avoid both the cost of pads or use of cloths.
"Less-privileged girls and women who represent substantial percentage in our contemporary Africa will continue to suffer resulting to school absenteeism and also compromising their right to health care," says Fredrick W. Njuguna, Programme Director of Familia Human Care Trust in Kenya.
A girl absent from school for four days a month due to menstruation loses 13 learning days, equivalent to two weeks of learning, in every school term. It is estimated that within the four years of high school the same girl loses 156 learning days equivalent to almost 24 weeks out of 144 weeks of learning in high school.
Consequently, a girl child potentially becomes a "school drop out" while she is still attending school. In addition, the girl child has to deal with emotional and psychological tension associated with the menstrual process.
To make matters worse, according to Familia Human Care Trust, many schools in underprivileged areas lack sufficient sanitation facilities which are vital not only during a girl’s period but at all times generally such as water, adequate toilet facilities and appropriate dumping facilities for sanitary wear. As a result, menstruating girls opt to stay at home due to lack of facilities to help them manage their periods rather than go to school.
For orphaned girls, the prospect of coping with bodily changes can be a significant challenge because they have no one to turn to for information or advice. In addition, due to the use of improper methods to contain their menstrual flow, young girls may develop bodily odors that will lead to social exclusion within peer groups thereby negatively affecting on the young girl’s confidence.
Though menstruation is perhaps one of the most regular individual female experiences, in sub-Saharan Africa, it is largely a private act and the associated problems of lack of sanitary supplies remains hidden and never makes the news headlines. Cultural and social attitudes usually render discussion of menstruation almost impossible.
The need for affordable sanitary wear for women and girls in Africa is indeed a major public health issue that governments need to prioritise in their planning. On the other hand, there is need for social innovation around this issue because the need for sanitary wear among girls and women will forever be there.
Affordable and hygienic sanitary protection is not available to many women and girls in Africa, and governments have done very little to address this reproductive health issue which has serious public health consequences.
The bottom line is that no girl child must be disadvantaged by the natural process of menstruation, and governments, civil society organisations and other players need to work together to ensure that the appropriate services are made available.
Global alliances between women in the rich and poor worlds can be a key solution to the problem of access to sanitary wear. But governments also need to recognise that ensuring women and girl’s access to sanitary wear has positive public health implications.
Access to affordable sanitary care is human right but one that is never discussed in our male dominated world. Whatever the case, the fact remains that every woman should be able to have access to the right products that can enable them to happily experience menstruation. No woman should be cursed to disempowerment by the natural act of monthly periods.
Masimba Biriwasha is the Africa Regional Campaigns, Communications and Policy Manager for Health & Development Networks. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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