Free sanitary towels. A reality?

Jacob Zuma and I have a tenuous relationship. A certain rape trial lingers in my memory. Listening to him pipe up about women’s rights gives me the same feeling that the more intuitive children of Hamelin might have had about the legendary Pied Piper: a smidgen of suspicion and a self-preserving sum of cynicism.

Personal feelings aside, I cannot help but question the ANC’s recently proposed sanitary towel initiative and ask whether Zuma’s words will be translated to practice. Zuma last week said the government would provide free sanitary towels to women who cannot afford them. Is 2011 a new era of gender equality in South Africa or is Zuma leading lines of people to the local government elections with luring lyrics and empty promises?

I wholeheartedly support the idea that every girl child in South Africa deserves access to sanitary towels. In his call for free sanitary towels last year, ANC Youth League (ANCYL) Secretary Vuyiswa Tulelo drew on the successful implementation of free condoms at public health institutions. Tulelo argued that if access to condoms has been prioritised by the government, why not apply the same principle to the health and hygiene of young women?

ANCYL provincial secretary Jacob Lebogo added to the momentum by asserting that men have “the responsibility to ensure that the rights of women are protected.”

There is little doubt that making sanitary towels accessible to girls and women who cannot afford them would promote gender equality in South Africa. The 28-day cycle that the majority of women go through is tied up with the cycle of poverty that affects millions of South Africans in everyday ways.

Without access to sanitary towels, a girl child in the SADC region may be excluded from her right to education. The Commonwealth Education Fund (CEF) and the Girl Child Network (GCN) have discovered that despite the provision of free schooling by the Kenyan government, more than 800,000 children (mostly girls) continue to forgo the opportunity of education.

The CGE and the GCN found that during menstruation, some girls refused to go to school because they cannot access sanitary towels and the school toilets are unsafe or unusable. The high cost of sanitary towels also results in the use of unhygienic sponges, tissue paper and even foliage during menstruation.

According to 2010 research for the “Freedom for Girls Project” of the Health Education Africa Resource Team (HEART), when a girl is absent from school four days a month due to menses, she loses 13 learning days in every school term. This means she loses 156 learning days in the 144 weeks of high school. Winkler concludes that “This is a clear indication that a girl child is a school drop-out while still in school.”

Other countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania and India have recognised the importance of providing sanitary towels to girl students. For instance, a joint campaign by the CEF and the GCN resulted in Kenya’s Ministry of Finance agreeing to cancel the 16% VAT on sanitary pads.

In South Africa, similar projects have been spearheaded by non-governmental organisations such as the Small Projects Foundation (SPF) in the Eastern Cape. Zuma’s public commitment to take these activities seriously could fast-track the achievement of gender equality by 2015, which is a goal of the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, signed by South Africa in 2008.

Interrogating girls’ access to sanitary towels also reveals underlying issues of health, hygiene and sanitation that are pertinent to South Africans, regardless of gender. Questioning whether girls have access to water and ablutions during their period can reveal gaping inadequacies in the infrastructure of developing countries. If properly executed, Zuma’s endorsement of the sanitary towel campaign could open the doors to improving basic issues of human – rather than solely women’s – rights in South Africa.

Yet even as Zuma endorses free sanitary towels for women, his deafening silence on gender-based violence (GBV) continues.

Instead of tackling how the government will address rape, molestation and femicide, Zuma focused on the more sanitary issue of providing pads to women. The content of his speech confirms the conclusion of a Gender Links (GL) political discourse analysis that only 1% of official government speeches focus on GBV and a mere 4% make reference to the daily violation of women’s rights. Between March 2009 and April 2010, Zuma only referred to gender violence in 6% of his 118 speeches.

These figures are irresponsible given that the recent Gender-Based Violence Indicators project, piloted by GL and the Medical Research Council (MRC), found that three quarters of men in Gauteng have admitted to perpetrating violence against women. The GL discourse analysis concludes that “all politicians need to speak out more often and more forcefully on GBV”.

As a result, GL has called on the government to declare a state of emergency in the fight to end gender violence. Will Zuma answer this call? And, more importantly, will his political discourse be translated into political action? Sanitary towels won’t make a radical difference to young girls and women if they constantly fear the rampage of rape and violence in their everyday lives.

Mona Hakimi is the Gender Links Communications Programme Officer. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

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