How the innocuous sanitary towel will transform gender inequality

By Claire Martens

On the 8th of January this year, President Jacob Zuma gave the ANC 99th Anniversary speech; an event which highlighted some of our continuing crises in South Africa; such as unemployment and land reform. The thing is, these crises can make you feel so completely powerless that you wonder how government is ever going to achieve what it promises. Reading about it in the Sunday Times (“Nothing for Mahala”, 9 January 2011), I was quite surprised that Mr Zuma has promised this: “We will promote the provision of sanitary towels to women on the indigent list of municipalities”. And there, I thought, is something that government can achieve!

Many people may have glanced over the piece of information, but for me, I was delighted. That’s because, while procrastinating at work and devouring bits of news just before Christmas, I came across an article describing the transformative role one organisation is playing in thousands of girls’ lives. While researching HIV/AIDs and sexual education in the Eastern Cape, the Protecting Futures Initiative discovered that girl children were missing up to a week of schooling every month because they did not have access to sanitary towels. Further, the poor state of the ablution facilities in most schools did not allow the necessary hygiene and privacy to ensure that girls felt comfortable using them. The report states that “girls felt shame and pain”.

After missing so much school, girls were likely to drop out. The report found that by educating learners on puberty and health, giving them access to sanitary towels and by improving the ablution facilities, there was a marked decrease in absenteeism and fewer drop outs. This will inevitable improve girl’s ability to find employment and uplift theirs and their family’s lives. Who knew that the sanitary towel could create so much positive change?

I call the sanitary towel innocuous, but I must admit that it is anything but. Yes, it is cumbersome, grossly embarrassing for any teen and not in the least bit sexy, but it is also essential for a woman’s dignity and hygiene. For many middle-class people, it’s just another item in your shopping basket, but for thousands more it is an inaccessible luxury. Even for those who can afford to buy them, lack of education has meant that many young girls don’t know to ask their families to provide them. I have always thought that books and teachers were essential for education, but it is easy to overlook the little things.

I think, with a smirk, what it must have felt like for President Zuma to talk about sanitary towels while addressing the entire nation. However, I admire him for it too. It makes me think about how far we have come from the whispered conversations and sullied rags in nurseries of the 19th century. It makes me happy to know that “women’s issues” are now everyone’s issues and that, even at state level, President’s are forced to confront a very personal crises. The discussion and provision of sanitary towels is one small but noteworthy victory is the transformation of gender inequality and I only hope that Mr Zuma makes good his promise.



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