Over the past years, a number of civil society organisations have been conducting advocacy work around improving access to sanitary pads for the girl child in Africa, and beyond.  Many have taken a stand about the high price tags of sanitary pads, which are an essential commodity for most, if not all, women at some stage in their life.  The menstrual cycle for every girl and woman is not dignified when saddled with the costs of purchasing sanitary pads for an essential and natural experience, and many girls miss out on attending school while others resort to unhealthy alternatives, such as lining their underwear with cow dung, cloths, or cardboard boxes.

 

My organisation, The Voice of Africa Trust, is campaigning together with other organisations working in the health and sanitation space to collect and donate sanitary pads to school-aged girls, in order to keep them from missing classes.  Regardless of the effort we have all been making, the reality is we cannot reach all the girls we need to without political support and substantive funding.  Thankfully, it has not been for nothing.

Many of us in Botswana woke to great news on 2 August 2017: the Botswana parliament had backed a motion to provide free sanitary pads to girls in state and private schools.  Minister of Parliament, Polson Majaga for Nata-Gweta, tabled the motion, stating the aforementioned link between the gender gap in education and its link, particularly in rural areas, of lack of sanitary products, which was supported by the United Nations Education Agency study, Reflections on children in Botswana 2010.

Once tabled, Special-Elect Minister of Parliament, Miss Bogolo Kenewendo, pleaded with the government to reduce or abolish tax on sanitary pads and tampons.  She rightly argued that a women’s menstrual cycle was not by choice or desire, and that it was unfair for women to be taxed monthly over the span of, on average, 39 years for an experience they had no control over.  Miss Kenewendo contended that the issue of sanitary pads would, in the long run, impact the issue of poverty at large, as many girl students would be in a position to confidently attend school, and through educational empowerment, have capacity to be uplifted out of their economic hardships through professional capability.

We are confident that the move by the Botswana parliament is a vital step in ensuring access to quality and sustainable education for all, regardless of gender or socio-economic status.  Girls must have equal opportunities as their male counterparts, and will not be forced to miss vital schooling every month as a result of their menstrual cycle.

This is an important step that many African countries should seek to replicate, because the cost of sanitary pads contributes to both passive and active violation of women’s rights.  Unless governments acknowledge these contributing factors towards inaccessibility of education for the girl child, entire generations will continue to have limited or no access to education.  In my line of work, we have encountered situations were teenage girls, desperate to secure funds to purchase sanitary products, will engage in sexual activities with partners who exploit their vulnerability in exchange for money.  These acts have of course, resulted in not just sexual violation borne of desperation, but also sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies, which all increase the cycle of poverty.

Today we commend Botswana parliament for this bold move in securing the future of the girl child.  We call upon other African states to follow suit and ensure girls have a dignified menstrual cycle.  As the Voice of Africa, we shall follow closely on the free sanitary pads bill and encourage other countries to follow suit.

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