Period poverty severely impacts opportunities for women and girls in many parts of the world by restricting their education and employment opportunities. Lack of access to menstrual products and clean sanitary facilities directly impacts women and continuously feeds the poverty cycle.
30% of girls in Africa DROP OUT of school because they fall behind in their studies or are ashamed to attend school after being teased by their peers for soiling their clothes with blood.
In rural Zimbabwe I met the Numwa Women’s Support Group, who initiated their sanitary wear project to meet the needs for menstrual protection for girls. With girls often missing up to five days of school a month because of a lack of sanitary protection, that’s almost 25% of their entire schooling. The Numwa school women’s support group are now running a self-sustainable reusable sanitary pads project.
THE CRITICAL REUSABLE SANITARY PAD PROJECT
On the other side of the fence to a conservation Game reserve, at the back of the grounds of the Numwa high school is a shipping container, with a side built concrete canopy, surrounded by the schools maize crops for the children to learn how to grow and harvest. The women all sit under the concrete canopy, protected from the African sun, laughing and chatting as they work on the current batch of reusable pads, snipping off loose threads, fixing snap poppers to the sides and inserting the terry cloth pads to the holders.
The pad holders and the terry cloth pads are sewn and stitched with a donated sewing machine inside their sewing room - a 40-foot shipping container, with electricity installed, donated by volunteers giving them somewhere permanent to keep all the sewing equipment, fabrics, and partially made and finished pads. Before this container was donated, they were working out of empty classrooms at the school or sometimes their homes if they needed to.
The fabrics they use are often donated by volunteers or bought with money they make from selling the pads, as well as charitable financial donations. To make the pad holders, they use cotton woven fabrics with a plastic water resistant backing on the inside to stop any leaks, which fix around the girls underwear with a snap popper, each with 2 slots either end for the pad to go into and be held in place. The pad is an absorbent cotton terry cloth padding to absorb the period flow. This can then be taken out and washed and another one put in if needed.
Once all of the steps are made and they’re carefully finished, the pads get folded up neatly and made into ‘Bags of Joy’, named this, simply, from the amount of joy that they bring to every girl who receives one. Each bag, which is a small cloth draw string bag, contains five fabric reusable pads, three reusable pad holders, a pair of underwear, hand-wash, laundry soap and a towel, so that the girls can keep the pads, and themselves clean and hygienic.
By giving a girl 1 pair of underwear, and 5 pads, they’re giving her the freedom to go to school every day & play sport, as well as necessary daily activities for some such as simply collecting water and cooking and cleaning.
Made up of rural women, and teachers from the school, the group gather twice a week to meet the needs of the children in the school and surrounding areas. However, recently the group partnered with a highly recognised and motivated charity, Padding Africa, taking the project to an exciting, international level.
BREAKING MENSTRUAL TABOOS IN SOUTHERN AFRICA
Padding Africa is a charity who strive to empower women and girls by breaking the menstrual taboo and providing sustainable, clean menstrual products. They work with local communities and women’s groups across Southern Africa to tackle these issues by training female entrepreneurs and helping girls to build a brighter future.
Funding and donations go directly towards establishing and training sewing groups made up of rural women. They provide them with the tools, know-how and materials they need to make washable sanitary pads that they can sell in their local markets to generate their own income. They also donate sanitary pads made by these women to local schoolgirls so that they can go to school during their menstrual cycle.
This all started with the Numwa Mothers’ Sewing group, the founding seamstresses of the reusable pads.
The group are now making these packs, or ‘Bags of joy’ for distribution around Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Mozambique, which is bringing much needed funding into the community and assisting thousands of girls throughout the region, to go about her teenage years, her education and daily life with ease and to not miss out because of her period.
Together they have been distributing throughout southern Africa, and have travelled to Zambia, Mozambique and other areas of Zimbabwe educating and assisting other rural women, setting them up with their own micro businesses and producing the much-needed reusable sanitary pads for the women and girls in their own local communities, rendering them self-sustainable.
"It’s not just about ending period poverty, but about equipping women to uplift themselves"
Tanya Puncuh – Padding Africa founder
You can read more about this amazing, incredibly valuable project at PADDING AFRICA.
THE REALITY OF PERIODS IN AFRICA
Period poverty is caused by a lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, hand washing facilities, and/or waste management. It affects millions of girls and women worldwide. Sanitary pads are not available in rural areas, and women in poverty-stricken communities are often faced with a choice of buying food or sanitary pads.
At times, girls will dig a hole at home and sit in it for the entire duration of their menstruation. Some girls will try even dry leaves, chicken feathers, sand, soil, dung, newspapers, pieces of rag or foam mattresses in their underwear to stop the blood seeping through so that they can go to school. Using unhygienic options can result in life-threatening infections and diseases.
With the facts of 30% of girls dropping out of school or falling behind in school because of period poverty and period shame, this leads to girls marrying early, often to older men meaning a lifetime of domestic work, teenage childbearing, and often violence. Girls can start their period as young as 10 or 11, and in some cultures, this means they are ready for marriage.
Teenage childbearing can lead to life-long social and economic disadvantages and severe poverty levels. It limits educational and career opportunities and often results in larger family sizes leading to a poorer financial and health status.
Maternal mortality rate is also high for girls in their teenage years. Their young bodies are not physically ready for childbirth; their pelvises are smaller, and therefore, they are prone to obstructed labour, haemorrhage, and other complications. Babies of adolescent mothers’ risk low birth weight, birth injuries, mental and physical disabilities, and more.
Many young girls do not have adequate knowledge of menstrual hygiene. Poor menstrual hygiene can result in higher health risks, such as reproductive and urinary tract infections which can lead to infertility and birth complications.
With proper funding and education, and charities such as Padding Africa, period poverty can be a simple issue to resolve with something as insignificant as ensuring that girls and women have sanitary pads, giving women and girls a chance for a better future by improving their own lives and their communities in general.
THE PERIOD ECOLOGICAL DAMAGE IN AFRICA
In poverty-stricken rural areas, there is no waste management and often sanitary products are burnt – contaminating the soil, water and air. In areas where waste management does exist, sanitary products are either binned or flushed and not disposed of as they should be, usually ending up in landfills, rivers, and on beaches.
Most sanitary products contain over 90% single-use plastic and each pad can contain as much plastic as four shopping bags. Even the string in tampons contain plastic, applicators are made from Polyethylene and Polypropylene, and the wrapping and packaging are made from non-recyclable plastic.
This waste is toxic and hazardous to human health as well as the environment. Chemicals from sanitary pads reach the soil causing groundwater pollution and loss of soil fertility.
Many women take the disposal of sanitary products for granted, but even with proper waste management, they are a huge contributor to environmental damage. Every year sanitary pad waste that ends up in landfills, clogs sewers or contributes to the staggering amount of plastic in our oceans increases.
For everyone, there is a better way. Reusable period protection is the only way forward.