By Fiona Ruzha
Cowdung and rags are all she has had access to ever since she started menstruating. She can barely afford a pant, let alone sanitary wear.
Melody Nkomo, a form-three pupil from Mahlothova Secondary School, Umguza district in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland North province has never had any pride in menstruating given all these challenges. The 18-year-old walks 16 kilometers to school and when she is on her monthly periods, she stays at home and nurses the period.
“I walk 16 kilometers to and from school. In addition, when I am on my periods, I do not go to school because of the lack of proper sanitary wear.
“I normally would use cow dung and rags until a reusable pads project was introduced to our school. It was only after the project was introduced that I also got access to something that is not cow dung or rags,” she says.
Melody is from a child headed family where she is responsible for the upkeep of her three other siblings after their mother abandoned them so they survive through God’s grace and mercy of well-wishers.
“So you can imagine being the head of a family at this age, sanitary pads would be a luxury that I do not afford. My sister also started menstruating recently and I had to take her through this process. Taught her to use cow dung and rags as well.
“I’m glad the reusable sanitary pads project came to our school but it is its sustainability that I’m not sure of as sometimes we fail to sew the pads due to lack of materials.”
Melody’s story mirrors that of millions of impoverished girls around Zimbabwe who have no access to sanitary wear and have resorted to the use of these traditional methods to manage their period. Apart from missing school when she is on her period, Melody is at risk of infections that come with the use of things like cow dung and rags.
Family Health Director in the Ministry of Health and Child Care Bernard Madzima says they have heard of stories like Melody’s where girls resort to using cow dung, newspapers and rags due to failure to access sanitary wear. Dr Madzima notes that these methods expose girls and women to reproductive health infections adding that there was urgent need for Zimbabwe to come up with a lasting solution to this problem.
“These methods predispose girls and women to infections such as yeast infections, candida albicans, and urogenital tract infections and if inserted in vaginal tract they can even cause cervical cancer.
“The reusable pads are breeding grounds for salmonella, staphylococcus and E. Coli and several other bacteria. Another effect is that absorbing of blood cannot be guaranteed leading to leakages and embarrassing moments,” he said.
Dr Madzima believes a sustainable solution is to have locally manufactured pads that are cheaper and accessible while also ensuring that underprivileged girls like Melody have access to free sanitary wear.
“We need pads which are locally manufactured. We grow cotton in Zimbabwe but we are importing pads. Something has to give in so that we end period poverty, we need a situation where girls like Melody can access sanitary wear and have a happy period.”
Rural women and girls now resort to traditional methods such as newspapers, rags, leaves, tissue paper and cow dung because sanitary wear is now expensive and they can afford.
Government have made efforts to ease the situation by removing tax on sanitary wear but there have not been any changes as they are still expensive purchase.
A sexual and reproductive health and rights lobby group Katswe Sistahood believes that an education bill that makes a provision for free sanitary in schools could address all these problems and end period poverty.
“We have had advocacy programs with the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education to ensure that it is mandatory for schools to provide sanitary wear for girls. We were prompted to come up with such an idea after realising that at school it is hard to get assistance because the girls do not have their aunts around for support.
“Therefore, this has to be pushed at all corners so that young girls can get assistance. We have heard many stories of girls dropping out of school because they were laughed at but if they have a plan like this; it will work perfectly for them. So if we want to protect our girls to stay in school, the education bill should make a provision,” says Katswe Sistahood director, Talent Jumo.
Jumo added that about 72 percent of girls do not have access to sanitary wear noting that such kind of statistics were very scary meaning that girls missed school during such times.
Commenting on the use of traditional methods, a traditional healer, Mbuya Martha Katsande argues that while these were used in the past, technology had ensured that safer methods were available hence they should be accessible.
“It was a culture that people would use cow dung or rags because that is what available that time but later women and girls started to use cotton and pads after these came.
“But I can safely say that these traditional methods had no side effects that time unlike now we are living in times, where we hear of diseases such as cancer.
“Back then women would feel very comfortable using these methods especially rags which can be easily used again after washing them. But I believe it is the environment that has changed,” she said.
Zimbabwe Gender Commission chair Chimbunde Hungwe believes intervention from the Government through subsidising sanitary wear was the only sustainable solution the current challenges. Hungwe says they had received several reports about girls and women using items like cow dung, paper during their period noting that this was sad in this day and age.
“Yes we have received reports from various NGOS about girls and women in the rural areas who are still using the traditional methods of sanitary wear. These methods negatively affect our reproductive health especially cow dung is not clean thereby leading to infections and even cervical cancer.
“I think sanitary wear should be subsidized by the government because the vulnerable girls and women are still facing this challenge especially in the rural areas. The unavailability of sanitary wear has even impacted on gender equality to an extent that girls miss school because they do not have.
“This is a real setback on gender equality and the Government should intervene in making sure that sanitary wear. The removal of duty alone is not enough to solve this problem.”
As Zimbabwe continues to search for a lasting solution to this problem, Melody and several other underprivileged girls envisage a day where they can also have access to sanitary, have dignity restored and menstruate with pride. H-Metro