By Haafizah Bhamjee
Over the past three years, my team at Amnesty International Wits and I have been campaigning on our university campus for free pads. This meant talking about our periods a lot and in a very public way.
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For most of us, this is the first opportunity we have had to speak about menstruation in public. Many girls around the world grow up in homes and communities that restrict what they are allowed to say about their bodies. Speaking of the female body and its functions have always been a big taboo in most cultures. However, this often means that girls and women suffer in silence. Many are unable to speak about the issues that they face daily; one being a lack of access to sanitary products.
According to UNICEF, 1 in 10 school girls in Africa cannot afford sanitary pads. That’s over two million schoolgirls in South Africa alone. A survey we did at Wits University showed that every 1 in 6 students couldn’t afford sanitary products. Many women and girls are forced to use alternative and unhealthy methods of handling their menses. For example, many use old newspaper, rags of cloth and toilet paper in place of pads and tampons. Many more miss out on school, work and other opportunities such as sport. An estimate shows that schoolgirls in South Africa miss out on approximately 70-100 days of school a year, because of a lack of access. This disproportionately impacts girls and women from lower-income communities. It also means that women and girls have fewer opportunities available to them than their male counterparts.
Educating women and girls is the only proven method of reducing poverty in our communities. In a country saddled with political strife, race & sex discrimination and wealth inequality; the conversation around sanitary products is rarely brought to the table. This means our plea often falls on deaf ears. Sanitary products are still taxed as luxury items; something we call the period tax. Earlier this year President Cyril Ramaphosa proposed a 1% tax increase, without considering the implications for poorer communities.
In many ways, menstruation and women’s bodies have become a political conversation. One that we don’t plan on halting any time soon. Through our campaign we have raised funds and donations for students on campus, we have had a march and hand over of demands and we have petitioned 3500 signatures for our course. You can see more of what we are doing by visiting our Instagram (@WorthBleedingFor), Facebook (Amnesty International Wits) and Twitter (@AI_Wits) pages for more information.