March 24, 2017
HARARE, ZIMBABWE — The documentary exhibits the nightmare of a young girl, laughed at by classmates because of a red blotch at the back of her school uniform. Sadly, the humiliation doesn’t end there. It extends further, as her teacher proclaims, “You are now ripe!”
The film documents the embarrassment girls face when they cannot afford to buy sanitary products, which is cited as a reason why some don’t attend school during their periods. The film was shown to the 15-member nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) parliamentary forum when its members met in Harare in the fall. It was shown by Katswe Sistahood, a nongovernmental organization in Zimbabwe that advocates for sexual and reproductive health rights for women.
The organization and others are calling on African governments in the SADC region to reduce taxes on sanitary products and to offer them for free in schools. The campaign is having some success: Zambia’s 2017 budget includes funds for free sanitary products for rural and semi-rural schools, and South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal education department began distributing free sanitary products to rural schools in February.
Zimbabwe hasn’t taken that step, but the campaign has prompted the government here to remove the 15 percent tax associated with importation of raw materials used to make sanitary wear.
However, the tax on imported sanitary pads remains in Zimbabwe, as does the 15 percent sales tax, and advocates continue to push the government to provide free sanitary pads in schools and public places, according to Nancy Chabuda, programs coordinator at Katswe Sistahood.
Free sanitary wear is needed, Chabuda says, because many girls in Zimbabwe can’t afford to buy it. “Their parents will be struggling to put food on the table, hence sanitary pads become a luxurious item,” she says.
Statistics from Stichting Nederlandse Vrijwilligers, a Netherlands development organization, confirm this, saying 72 percent of girls in Zimbabwe reported never having used sanitary pads because of their expense. With the World Food Programme estimating that 63 percent of Zimbabwe’s population lives below the poverty line at $1.25 a day, sanitary material, with costs ranging from 90 cents to $2.45, becomes a non-priority.
UNESCO says the cost of sanitary wear is a problem throughout the continent and estimates that one in 10 girls in Africa misses school during their menses and eventually drops out.
Katswe Sistahood has launched an online campaign dubbed #happyflow, through an initiative called Pepeta Africa, an online community of young female sexual and reproductive health rights activists from Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Swaziland.
In 2012, when Wellence Mujuru was a member of the Junior Senate representing the Makonde District, he started a foundation to raise funds to secure and donate sanitary pads to girls in the Makonde and Rushinga rural areas.
“If the government can be able to pay for the free condoms being distributed around the country, I believe it can do the same for girls’ sanitary products,” he says.
Chido Hove, a student at a local university, acknowledges that sanitary material is too expensive for some.
“At our age, nobody risks moving around with a soiled dress, so one makes sure they get the money to buy sanitary pads by hook or by crook,” Hove says.
On the government’s move to end the tax on imported raw materials for sanitary products, economist Albert Mukochekanwa says consumers might benefit if the duty removed is subtracted from the end product, thereby decreasing final costs. But he says that retailers or importers can easily pocket those decreases, and consumers wouldn’t see a difference in prices.
Monica Mutsvangwa, chairwoman of the Zimbabwe Women’s Parliamentary Caucus, acknowledges that the country’s financial constraints make free sanitary wear difficult, but says the caucus will continue to push for distribution of free sanitary products.
“The economy may not be doing very well, but where the heart is, we should be able to put our money,” Mutsvangwa says. “We have to continue pushing on. When you go to battle, you go to win.”