Period poverty leaves girls using tissue paper
Bontleng is one of the fastest-growing locations in Botswana’s capital city Gaborone, with its population growing from 3,512 in the 2001 census to 14,655 in the 2011 census. Many people who stay in the location migrated to the capital city seeking greener pastures and Bontleng is one of the more preferred areas for its affordable rent. While the idea of living a stone’s throw from the urban jungle appears attractive, many families residing in Bontleng are living in abject poverty.
One of the hardest hit demographics in Bontleng’s poverty is young women and girls whom surveys have found often cannot afford to buy a packet of sanitary pads forcing them to miss school during their menstruation cycle days. COVID-19, which has caused breadwinners to lose their jobs and even lose their lives, has worsened the situation, forcing many families to choose between their next meal and a sanitary product for a young woman or girl.
“My period days have not been pleasant at all because my mother cannot afford to buy me sanitary pads,” Naomi Molefhe, a 13-year-old resident of Bontleng, tells Mmegi.
“I have been using the toilet paper to drain my menstrual blood and this is the most uncomfortable experience ever. It is also unhealthy.” A Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), Success Capital Organisation, has intervened in the crisis young women and girls are facing in Bontleng, providing sanitary products for free.
Molefhe says she and her younger sister count themselves lucky to have received three packets of sanitary pads from the NGO.
The pads sorted me out for three months so I did not have to worry about my periods for those months. “I had the most comfortable, clean and safe period days ever. “I played with my friends without worrying about staining myself. “I wish we could continue getting more sanitary pad donations.”
Elizabeth Matshaba, who is also chairperson of the Health Protection Committee in Bontleng, observes that there is a dire need for sanitary pads in the community. She says many mothers cannot afford to pay for sanitary pads for their daughters, let alone for themselves. As a result, many girls tend to stain themselves during menstruation days and use school jerseys to hide the stains. She adds that some girls find it hard to tell their parents when they get their first period and as a result do not play with their peers during menstruation days. Young women and girls often resort to desperate measures during their menstruation. “Toilet papers are not hygienic for draining blood during menstruation,” says Matshaba. “The habit of using tissue paper carries a serious public health risk. “The practice places girls and women at risk of having an infection and developing serious health problems.”
Dineo Office, another member of the Health Protection Committee in Bontleng, explains Bontleng’s unique challenges that worsen the situation for young women and girls. Most of the young women and girls in Bontleng are orphans and underprivileged with a low standard of living. Due to high unemployment in the area, it is very difficult for these girls to buy food, toiletry and also pay rent. In many cases, Office says, up to 10 girls stay together in one rented room, with only one or two of them working to take care of the rest of the household.
“Many girls were happy when we gave them the sanitary pads and they said it was worthy. “We did not leave out the boy-child but also gave them toothpastes and rollons. “Due to the stress brought by COVID-19, many of the children need counselling. “Not being able to socialise and their living situations, are weighing on them. They need support because going to school without a uniform, school shoes and a warm meal is affecting their academics.” Success Capital director, Dumiso Gasha explains that the decision to donate sanitary and other goods came from a research study on teenage pregnancy and defilement.
He says the NGO views the donations as a tangible way to give back and mitigate just one aspect of the many challenges the girl-child experiences in a country regarded as the second-highest in reported rape in the world and also one of the most unequal.
“Since we started our donation drive in March in remote locations such as Mookane, Tshesebe and Tsamaya, we recognised that there are underserved communities even within the proximity of the capital city.
“One in 10 girls misses school because of period poverty. “We reached out to the Bontleng Child Protection Committee who saw the importance of the donation and collaborated with us to make sure we provide for 150 girls and 50 of their caregivers, siblings and family. “We gave them a three-month supply that we will be recommitting on August 12 in commemoration of International Youth Day,” Gasha explains. In choosing which places to target for donations, the NGO considered various locations within Gaborone and noted that some had forms of assistance, while Bontleng seemed to be left out. The area also has a high incidence of poverty and violence, making it a suitable candidate for interventions targeted at vulnerable women and girls.
“Since we started our sanitary pad donations campaign, we have donated about 4,300 packets of pads for 1,109 girls and their caregivers, guardians, siblings and mothers with 708 having received twice to date. “In addition and without leaving the boy-child to date, we donated P5,000 worth of toothpaste and roll-on for students in the North East.”
Success Capital has donated to various schools countrywide, Lephoi Centre for the Blind, Centre for Deaf Children and the Women’s Shelter, to mention a few. For International Youth Day, the NGO will be adding Old Naledi, Tshwaragano Junior School and other selected communities. Gasha says the organisation hopes that through partnerships and political will, it can spread its assistance to other areas such as Greater Gaborone, Okavango and Gantsi.
“COVID-19 has brought many challenges ranging from unplanned pregnancies, sexual abuse, poverty, unsafe abortion, various forms of violence, layers of care work, phobias and structural issues such as harmful gender norms all amidst a global pandemic and deteriorating mental health,” he says.
Period poverty, or the lack of access to sanitary products due to financial constraints, remains the main concern for many girls particularly those residing in remote rural areas. However, right in the heart of the capital, Gaborone, girls in Bontleng and Old Naledi are crying the same tears. Mmegi Correspondent NNASARETHA KGAMANYANE writes