Give girls and women a head start

Sello Mokoena
Sello Mokoena

In his book titled Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers: The Ideas that have Shaped Our World, author Philip Stokes states: “The original feminist, [Mary] Wollstonecraft, who died in childbirth at the early age of 38, was a radical thinker who campaigned both for the rights of women and also for the rights of men…”

She firmly believed that “since the good of society proceeds from the increase of reason, knowledge and virtue, it can only be to the benefit of both sexes to maximise these qualities”.

Most of the rhetoric and the vocabulary of empowerment that permeated western institutions, lexicons and the feminist movement are as a result of the empowerment ideas and practices derived from Wollstonecraft’s feminist theory. Her thinking and ideas have been developed and implemented successfully in both developed and developing countries, and South Africa is not excluded from this phenomenon.

Since the dawn of the democratic dispensation, successive governments have introduced a plethora of progressive policies, legislative frameworks and allied interventions to develop and empower women and girls.

Large numbers of schoolgirls are enrolled in subjects such as natural and economic sciences, including mathematics and technology, which traditionally were perceived as the preserve of the boy child, and more women have made great strides in various fields.

Despite these achievements, a disturbing trend shows a number of schoolgirls from poor households fail to attend school while menstruating owing to a lack of basic necessities such as sanitary towels.

Research conducted by Stellenbosch University “has found that about 30% of girls in South Africa do not attend school when they are menstruating because they cannot afford sanitary products. Poor, venerable and marginalised women and girls often cannot afford essential hygienic products. The fact that many girls and women cannot afford proper sanitary hygiene products has further serious consequence in other aspects of their lives”.

Evidently, in the long run their needs and struggles are inseparable. Thus, as we celebrate Women’s Month we should stop reflecting on it as an exclusive month for women and adopt an inclusive approach that amalgamates women’s and girls’ developmental needs.

The initiative should not only focus on the provision of sanitary pads, but it should endeavor to inculcate the spirit of entrepreneurship from an early age and to develop an economic development model for the production of affordable sanitary pads and other protective garments for menstrual hygiene. These measures will promote entrepreneurship and allow women and girls to build successful careers and businesses in the quest to ward off the challenges of poverty, inequality, unemployment and abuse.

Global trends show that private sector companies can play a crucial role in this respect, in particular manufacturers and exporters of sanitary and waste management and packaging companies. In the words of Dr Varina Tjon-A-Ten, an expert with academic and practical credentials in menstrual hygiene, the private sector’s participation will be most crucial to expedite success:

  • For the transfer of expertise and technology that need to be made locally applicable by using simple, small-scale and easily operable machines;
  • To invest so that women and girls can establish businesses that manufacture and distribute sanitary dignity pads;
  • To guide and coach the female entrepreneurs so that their businesses can make profits, pay back the investments and grow; and
  • To develop links with education institutions and encourage other producers of menstrual sanitary products to do the same to improve access to markets.

Clearly this approach would enhance potential and equip women and girls with portable and adaptable skills central to protecting the gains our country is making towards improving the socioeconomic status and education levels of women in general. It would enhance efforts intended to promote women’s causes and related aspirations, and the direction the country is taking in building the nation.

We need to meet their unique needs as we combat the scourge of child poverty. We have to ensure that children from poor households do not run the risk of underperforming and of becoming the next generation of poor women. Giving venerable girls access to an integrated package of services such as sanitary pads and educational support is one of the most effective measures of eliminating many limits to learning, and of preparing them for a life with responsibility and dignity.

Clearly, developing an economic model for this purpose, guided by a variety of actors and perspectives including the business community, policymakers and researchers, is crucial. Investing more in women’s education from an early age would give them a head start in life. It would ultimately amplify their natural talents and give them a greater chance of achieving more in school and in their futures, and contribute towards the building of an equitable society.

Mokoena is a public servant and an expert in e-learning, international communications, globalisation and development


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