San­i­tary free­dom keeps African school­girls in class­rooms


Sue Barnes had no prob­lem get­ting san­i­tary pads while she grew up in South Africa. But not ev­ery girl, she came to re­al­ize, is so lucky and their pe­ri­ods weigh over daily life.

In 2010, Barnes learned that girls from poor fam­i­lies were skip­ping school each time they were men­stru­at­ing, be­cause they can­not af­ford san­i­tary pads.

“I just couldn’t be­lieve it, it blew my mind,” said Barnes, 49, wear­ing a black shift dress and a pearl neck­lace. “Girls were miss­ing a week of school a month.”

Since then, Barnes has ded­i­cated her life to mak­ing sure that no young girl in South Africa has to skip school just be­cause she is men­stru­at­ing.

“I re­al­ized there was a much big­ger need,” Barnes said in a class­room with yel­low walls and a green chalk­board at a school in Diep­kloof, a poor sub­urb of Jo­han­nes­burg.

“I just don’t think peo­ple were aware of it. It’s easy to say ‘Ah, shame,’ and walk in an­other di­rec­tion.”

Barnes, who pre­vi­ously worked in the clothes in­dus­try, de­signed a re­us­able pack of pads and panties.

At 190 rand (US$16) for a set of three panties and nine clip-on pads, Barnes’ prod­uct is con­sid­er­ably cheaper than the drug­store equiv­a­lent be­cause her prod­uct is re­us­able for years.

In South Africa, a pack of 10 pads sells for 23 rand (US$1.80), which adds up to an ex­or­bi­tant sum for the av­er­age black em­ployee in the coun­try, who earns just 2,167 rand (US$183) a month.

“The girls were us­ing sand, leaves, plas­tic packets, news­pa­pers to con­tain the blood,” said Barnes, shak­ing her head with dis­be­lief. “One girl said her mother told her to go sit on a cow patty.”

Barnes is now man­u­fac­tur­ing packs of panties and clip-on re­us­able pads for schools in neigh­bor­ing Le­sotho and Swazi­land.

The pads, which are wash­able, at­tach onto the panties with snaps and last ap­prox­i­mately five years.

Barnes works through her non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion, Project Dig­nity. She ap­proaches non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions or cor­po­rate clients who do­nate money to pro­duce packs of the pads for dif­fer­ent schools.

“My vi­sion is to have ev­ery girl ed­u­cated,” said Barnes. “Not only that, but give (them) dig­nity and sel­f­re­spect.”

‘A use­less gov­ern­ment’

The men­strual prob­lem is wide­spread. The U.N. Chil­dren’s Fund (UNICEF) es­ti­mates that one in 10 fe­male African young­sters still “do not at­tend school dur­ing men­stru­a­tion.”

But in some coun­tries like Uganda, the fig­ure is es­ti­mated to be more than 60 per­cent.

Yet peo­ple like Barnes are start­ing to make a dif­fer­ence, head­ing up a raft of ini­tia­tives across the coun­try — and the con­ti­nent — to help girls stay in school by pro­vid­ing eco­nom­i­cal san­i­tary pads.

The African Wa­ter Fa­cil­ity in Fe­bru­ary an­nounced it is pro­vid­ing a mil­lion-dollar grant to help im­prove san­i­ta­tion and men­strual hy­giene in South Africa’s Eastern Cape prov­ince with the goal of im­prov­ing school at­ten­dance, pay­ing “par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to the needs of girls.”

In Kenya, en­tre­pre­neur Bar­clay Paul Okari is mean­while pro­duc­ing in­ex­pen­sive, re­us­able pads for the east African mar­ket. In Rwanda, non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion Sus­tain­able Health En­ter­prises is mak­ing cheap pads from ba­nana trunk fiber.

Uganda’s gov­ern­ment, mean­while, has or­dered schools to pro­vide girls with what it calls “emer­gency” san­i­tary tow­els as well as spare uni­forms, un­der­wear and pain killers. But with no ex­tra money to pay for the items, schools ad­min­is­tra­tors say it is a cost they can­not af­ford.

De­spite be­ing Africa’s most de­vel­oped econ­omy, South Africa strug­gles to pro­vide ba­sic ser­vices — in­clud­ing flush toi­lets and trash col­lec­tion — to its schools.

In 2011, Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma promised free san­i­tary tow­els to cash-strapped women, but teach­ers on the ground say that the gov­ern­ment has not se­ri­ously fol­lowed through on the un­der­tak­ing.

Ev­ery month, teacher Florence Radebe sees a hand­ful of her girls skip school be­cause they are hav­ing their pe­ri­ods.

“It’s be­cause some of them don’t have san­i­tary pads,” says Radebe, a mem­ber of a trust that of­fers ex­tra classes on Satur­days to Diep­kloof chil­dren.

Sim­i­larly, Moses Odongo, head teacher at the pri­vate, co­ed­u­ca­tional pri­mary Lwerude­sco Learn­ing and Co­or­di­nat­ing Cen­tre in Uganda’s ru­ral Lwengo dis­trict, said girls miss­ing school dur­ing men­stru­a­tion was a “big prob­lem” that led some to fall be­hind or even aban­don their stud­ies al­to­gether.

Lwengo stu­dent Vi­o­let Nalubyayi, 14, re­mem­bers her first pe­riod last year when her mother handed her an old rag and then she skipped school for five days.

Un­able to af­ford san­i­tary pads, Nalubyayi was afraid she might end up hu­mil­i­ated in front of her class­mates. “I was scared. I may be run­ning, it may fall and they laugh,” she said. So for the du­ra­tion of her men­strual pe­ri­ods she stayed home, wor­ry­ing how it would af­fect her aca­demic per­for­mance.

Oc­ca­sion­ally rep­ri­mand­ing ram­bunc­tious stu­dents play­ing in the con­crete school court­yard, 63-year-old South African teacher Radebe ex­plains that she has tried to ap­proach the gov­ern­ment about this is­sue be­fore.

“I don’t know why they are drag­ging their feet,” she said, click­ing her tongue in dis­ap­proval. “My dar­ling, it’s a use­less gov­ern­ment.”

So Radebe was happy to see Barnes, who was dis­tribut­ing packs of her panties and re­us­able pads at the Diep­kloof school on a cool Satur­day morn­ing.

The girls, in their late teens, squealed with ex­cite­ment when they re­ceived the pads, say­ing they would def­i­nitely use them.

“They will let me feel much more com­fort­able, and much cheaper,” said Mbali Nhlapo, a 15-year-old wear­ing tight jeans and black Con­verse run­ning shoes, who adds that the pads sold in stores are costly.

“It’s very ex­pen­sive be­cause I’m still a day schooler,” Nhlapo said. “This will save me money.”


(Left) Fac­tory work­ers sew to­gether panties with re­us­able san­i­tary pads for Subz Pads & Panties in the Cool and Comfy fac­tory in Dur­ban, South Africa on March 6.

(Right) A packet con­tain­ing re­us­able cloth san­i­tary pads is shown in Lwengo, Uganda on Feb. 25.

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