Many South African schools are facing absenteeism among their female adolescent students. With limited access to affordable feminine hygiene products for girls living in poverty, the tendency for students to skip school when on their period is common.
To try and help counter this, a new initiative supported by the government is handing out free menstrual cups.
The Serithi Campaign have already distributed 66 cups at Tshegofatsong school in Pretoria and plan to donate 5,000 more throughout the course of the year.
Serithi co-founder Nobuhle Mtshali, tells SBS: “Quite simply, they do not have the necessary feminine hygiene products to equip themselves during their period, they end up using towels, socks, newspapers or any other material that can act as an absorbing tool during their period.
The stress of leaking or that said material no longer working during the day makes it hard for her to focus on learning
“The stress of leaking or that said material no longer working during the day makes it hard for her to focus on learning due to being embarrassed of uncomfortable that she might leak in front of her peers.
“More importantly, this diminishes dignity. No one should have to choose between sanitation and food on the table, and that is the reality that many children face due to the socio-economical climate that our country is in. Tampons and pads are a luxury.”
Remaining in school and getting an education is vital to disadvantaged young girls as it helps break the cycle of poverty and plays an integral role in combating gender inequality.
Young women with access to education are “less likely to marry early and against their will, less likely to die in childbirth, more likely to have healthy babies, and are more likely to send their children to school” according to UNICEF.
Ms Mtshali believes girls shouldn’t be disadvantaged inside the classroom because of a natural and inevitable process. “Girl's studies are interrupted over something they cannot help,” she says.
“This then means they have to catch up, go for extra lessons which extends the natural process of learning at school. This means that girls are one step behind their male counterparts.”
While their first handout was funded by the campaign itself, Serithi have now secured backing from the government to continue their work.
83 percent of girls surveyed in Burkina Faso and 77 percent in Niger preferred to go home to change their sanitary protection
They distribute menstrual cups rather than pads or tampons as one individual cup made of medical grade silicon can be used for up to five years and each use generally lasts for six to 12 hours, meaning many girls won't have to change during school hours. They are also easy to clean, discreet and hypoallergenic.
The issue of absenteeism during menstruation isn’t confined to South Africa and persists elsewhere on the continent. A 2013 case study by UNICEF into menstrual hygiene at school found that 83 percent of girls surveyed in Burkina Faso and 77 percent in Niger preferred to go home to change their sanitary protection as the facilities at school are inadequate.
This results in many missing lessons and those who don’t live in close proximity, simply not attending at all.
Similarly, an Oxford University study of 120 girls in Ghana found that when given 12 sanitary pads per month, absenteeism among those girls deceased by half.
In Kenya, it is estimated that 2.6 million girls need support to obtain menstrual hygiene materials. As a result, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has initiated a national sanitary towels program to provide free pads which is aimed at “keeping girls in school” and increasing their access, participation and performance.