Spotlight on SA women's menstruation plight – but still not enough being done

Using incorrect materials during menstruation may cause various fungal infections, UTIs and RTIs.
Using incorrect materials during menstruation may cause various fungal infections, UTIs and RTIs.

While the debate rages on about the support from government regarding the issue of adequate access to sanitary products for women in South Africa, doctors continue to warn about potential health risks.

In 2011, then-President Jacob Zuma, in his State of the Nation address, highlighted the need for services related to sanitary towels for the indigent.

This statement was important in creating discussion within the political sphere surrounding access to sanitary products. However, as we observe Menstrual Hygiene Day more than seven years later, it has emerged that little progress has been made.

Meanwhile, around the rest of the world, various initiatives continue to create positive change for women and girls.

In South Africa, however, women and girls are missing school due to not having access to appropriate menstrual products. Another problem is that they're substituting inappropriate “products” that are putting their health at risk for pads and tampons.


According to Brenda McCann, project co-coordinator of Subz Pants and Pads, women and girls struggle to access sanitary wear because of lack of funds or access to shops.

“This then results in the use of rags, leaves, corn cobs and anything else that can assist during their menstrual cycle. This is in no way hygienic and results in infections and illness," says McCann, whose company manufactures washable, reusable sanitary pads.

Dr Trudy Smith, Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at Netcare Parklane agrees. “Whether you choose to use a menstrual cup or a tampon or a pad, they are generally sterile. TSS (toxic shock syndrome) is the major complication, particularly in women who keep their tampons in for too long...

“The dangers of not using appropriate material for menstruation is from a hygienic and infectious perspective… TSS is a result of a bacteria, which accumulates in dead blood cells, for want of a better word.”

Studies show that by not regularly changing menstrual products or using incorrect materials, this may lead to women and girls developing yeast infections, UTIs, reproductive tract infections and fungal infections. In severe cases it may lead to infertility.

Wearing a soiled sanitary pad for a prolonged period of time can also cause skin irritations around the genital area. Leaving a tampon in for longer than eight hours increases your risk of contracting toxic shock syndrome.

Girls from poorer communities may not have access to general healthcare facilities either, which means that a lack of clean sanitary products may then create a ripple effect in the health and wellbeing of these girls.

Cost issue

South Africa is one of the many countries that have added a tax on menstrual products. This puts further strain on women and girls from underprivileged communities. On average, a female spends R300 to R600 a year on sanitary pads. Should they prefer to use tampons, females can expect to spend R500 to R600 a year. Menstruation cups cost about R250 once off and need to be replaced annually.

However, the Department of Women made a submission this month to the Independent Task Team of the National Treasury to review the items that are listed as zero-rated for VAT and consider adding sanitary dignity products to the list. 

Disrupted education 

Not only are the health and wellbeing of these girls and women compromised as a result of lack of resources, but for many young girls in South Africa, that time of the month means staying out of school as well. This is especially true for girls in rural areas where resources are not readily available and food for the household takes precedence over sanitary products.

Research shows that in 2016, there were 2.6 million girls aged 9 to 20 in South Africa. Many of these girls were not attending school due to their inability to pay school fees. It is estimated that this is the group of girls and women who potentially would be unable to afford sanitary products. 

Going forward 

In March of this year, Minister of Women in the Presidency, Bathabile Dlamini, said that primary and secondary schools would soon receive free sanitary towels. During a brief with Parliament's Multiparty Women's Caucus, she said, “Pads must be free for school kids. Children now start menstruating at the age of nine. It's young children; let's start with something we are going to win. We must start with children and we will go gradually."

The Sanitary Dignity Programme, run by the Department of Women, aims to provide low income schools, state universities, mental institutions, correctional facilities and various other care facilities with sanitary towels. The programme also includes reproductive, menstrual and hygiene education for women and girls at these facilities. The department has already kick-started three pilot projects in the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and KZN.

Image credit: WASH United/MH Day

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