Across the African continent, activists continue to campaign for the provision of free menstrual products to schoolgirls and a general reduction in the price of sanitary products for women. The high cost of these products, aggravated by the addition of VAT to the price, makes it harder for women to afford sanitary protection. This has resulted in what is now called “period poverty”.

One such activist is Chiamaka Nsude, a young woman who is spearheading a campaign for the provision of free menstrual products to schoolgirls attending public schools in Nigeria.

Bothered by the high cost of menstrual pads, Nsude, with friends and partners, procure tons of menstrual pads and take their education campaigns to public schools in the rural areas, where they distribute the pads to schoolgirls – for free.

“It is a community service aimed at promoting menstrual hygiene,” said Nsude, the founder of the Give A Girl A Pad initiative. “The need to reach out to ordinary people who, over the years, have had to resort to unhygienic alternative methods of menstrual care necessitated this initiative,” she told This is Africa.

Chiamaka Nsude, the founder of Give a Girl Pad Initiative during her outreach. Photo credit: Give a Girl Pad Initiative

The high cost of menstrual products is affecting many schoolgirls across Nigeria. “Period poverty”, which refers to a lack of access to sanitary products due to financial constraints, is a common problem. As an alternative, girls from poor homes use rags, cloths and tissue paper as pads during menstruation. This not only puts them at a disadvantage during their period but also places them at risk of contracting infectious diseases that could affect them later in life.

Read: Period Poverty: Can African countries supply free sanitary products?

Nsude attributes the high cost of menstrual pads (which sell for US$1 to US$2, or more, in some cases) to producers who say that the cost of materials has increased. “The rising cost of common goods has an effect on the cost of sanitary items. Some producers say the cost of sourcing production materials has increased a lot and the overall cost of production informs the increase in the sale price,” she said. “Newer brands have flooded the market but they are either not affordable or reliable.”

Chiamaka Nsude, the founder of Give a Girl Pad Initiative during her outreach, distributing sanitary pads and kits to school girls in Nigeria. Photo credit: Give a Girl Pad Initiative

“I have always advocated for making sanitary pads free for every girl. No girl has the choice not to have a menstrual cycle, but not every girl, especially those in rural communities, can afford it,” she says. Through her initiative, Nsude is currently helping schoolgirls by distributing pads to public schools in Nigeria and teaching schoolgirls about menstruation, breaking the taboo surrounding it, raising awareness and calling on government to design policies that will promote menstrual hygiene.

“We visit villages and schools where children are from poor homes,” she said. “For now, we raise funds from friends and family members and from our own pockets,” she said, explaining how she secures funds for her initiative.

Aside from the issue of the high cost of menstrual pads, clean toilets or a safe and hygienic private place where girls can change their pads in public or at schools are not always available.

Chiamaka Nsude, the founder of Give a Girl Pad Initiative during her outreach, distributing sanitary pads and kits to school girls in Nigeria. Photo credit: Give a Girl Pad Initiative

Partnerships against the high cost of menstrual pads

In addition to Nsude’s Give A Girl A Pad initiative, a group of young African women came together to form a joint partnership to campaign against the high cost of menstrual products in Nigeria and other African countries. The six-girl partnership, drawn from four countries in Africa, are campaigning against the high cost of menstrual products in their respective countries.

The women are Oluebube Okafor from Nigeria, founder of Changing Lives with Oluebube; Amagwu Chinenye from Nigeria, who is based in the US and is the founder of Not Disabled; and Imelda Coulibaly from Ivory Coast, who is based in the US and started Abusu Health. Also involved are Tufion Mercy from Cameroon, founder of Needful Children, Peace Ugwuanyi from Nigeria, who is based in Ukraine and founder of Beauty in You, and Mensah Gloria from Nigeria.

Together, they have formed a partnership calling for stronger collaboration by urging governments and relevant authorities and stakeholders to reduce the price of menstrual products.

“The partnership is firstly because we all acknowledge that it is a problem that should be brought to light,” said Peace Ugwuanyi. “Again, we are from, or are living in, different countries, yet this is a globally recognised issue that every woman faces. So, our partnership helps us to bring different perspective to the picture.”

In May, on 2018 Global Menstrual Hygiene Day, which is aimed at creating awareness and highlighting the importance of good menstrual hygiene management, experts in Nigeria joined voices to advocate for the reduction of sanitary pads for schoolgirls and women.

Activists in South Africa signing petitions

Activists and concerned citizens in South Africa have been signing a petition for the removal of taxes from sanitary pads. The petition, which will be submitted to the Independent Panel of Experts appointed by National Treasury, aims specifically to add feminine hygiene products such as tampons, sanitary napkins and menstruation cups to the list of VAT zero-rated items.

Beyond impacting women’s education, the expense of sanitary items further obstructs women’s ability to build wealth and save.

The petition states, “The additional cost of tax on feminine sanitary items therefore places women at a distinct financial disadvantage in comparison to men. The effect of the tax on these items for women from low-income households is particularly profound, given that should they be unable to afford the additional expense of sanitary items, these women are then forced to resort to using rags, cloths or even newspaper instead, or to stay at home, rather than attending work or school.”

Read: “Sex is a choice and menstruation is not”: There is no dignity in education without proper sanitation

The result of the increase in the price of menstrual pads, according to the petition, is that it reduces the level of attendance of girls at school and other engagements. For instance, in 2014, it was estimated that as many as 3,7 million girls in South Africa could be missing school because of their periods, with far-reaching consequences for their futures.

File picture. The Deputy Minister of Communications, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams with learners from Minerva High School at the launch of Sanitary Pads Project led by Proudly South African in Partnership with Sun International and Proctor and Gamble (P&;G). 18/09/2014. (Photo: GCIS)/flickr

The petition states that: “Beyond impacting women’s education, the expense of sanitary items further obstructs women’s ability to build wealth and save. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, South Africa was ranked at just 114 out of 144 countries in terms of wage equality, meaning that South African women already earn less than men for the same work performed. Being unable to access or having to pay additional tax on what is essentially a medical necessity not only has the potential to impact women’s work performance, but entrenches the poverty trap that many women from low-income households find themselves in.”

Started early this year, the public petition, as at June, has received over 58 000 signatures for a 75 000 target. “Finally, taxing feminine hygiene products essentially means that the government draws additional revenue specifically from women in a form of institutionalised gender discrimination, profiting unequally from women and their bodies. At its most basic, VAT on feminine hygiene products thus flies in the face of the right to gender equality enshrined by the South African Constitution,” the petition reads.

In March, another group, Cosmopolitan South Africa, started a petition on Change.org for the removal of tax on sanitary products: “Tampons and sanitary pads are subject to the same value-added tax (VAT) that other ‘luxury items’ are. This year the budget speech announced that VAT went up to 15%, meaning that these so-called ‘luxury items’ became even more expensive on 1 April 2018. The government does have basic items considered a necessity – like brown bread and milk – that aren’t taxed with VAT. These items are zero-rated – the question is, why are women taxed for sanitary ware, which is a basic necessity?” COSMO asked in the petition.

Two years ago, an earlier petition by the University of Cape Town’s Committee for Health, Environment and Safety condemned the South African government for the increase in the price of sanitary products and called for a review.

“For many middle-class people, tampons and sanitary pads are just an item on the grocery list but for most South Africans, a R25 box of tampons a month eats into an already tight budget. The UCT SRC strongly condemns the notion that tampons are a luxury good, deemed ‘non-essential’ by SARS. The UCT SRC supports the notion that all sanitary pads and tampons should be tax-exempt to ensure lower prices and easier access to these essential products. Periods are not a luxury and we strongly urge the South African government to reassess their policy regarding all menstrual-products, such as tampons, sanitary pads, menstrual cups and panty-liners,” the petition reads.

Situation in other countries

In 2017, a Ugandan activist, Stella Nyanzi, was arrested and charged with cyber harassment and misuse of the computer for shaming the government for not distributing free sanitary pads to schoolgirls, as promised. Nyanzi has been a frontline advocate for free sanitary pads while criticising the government for insensitivity to the issue of women and girls.

In one of her Facebook posts, she criticised Uganda’s First Lady, Janet Museveni, alongside her husband, for reneging on their 2016 campaign promise to distribute free sanitary pads to schoolgirls in their country. Instead, Museveni and his wife complained that the country was facing an economic downturn and therefore could not provide free sanitary products to schoolgirls.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni gestures as he speaks to National Resistance Movement (NRM-O) members at the party at their headquarters in Kampala Tuesday 7 February 2006. Photo: ANP/EPA. Mike Odongkara

“What sort of mother allows her daughters to stay away from school because they are too poor to afford padding materials that would adequately protect them from the shame and ridicule that comes by staining their uniforms with menstrual blood? What malice plays in the heart of a woman who sleeps with a man who finds money for millions of bullets, billions of bribes and uncountable ballots to stuff into boxes but she cannot ask him to prioritise sanitary pads for poor schoolgirls? She is no Mama! She is just Janet!” Nyanzi’s Facebook post of 15 February 2017 reads.

Some countries, however, have started taking steps to address the situation by, in some cases, signing laws that would facilitate the provision of free sanitary pads to schoolgirls.

In Rwanda, significant achievements have been registered. The Ministry of Education now has a budget to give girls in basic education access to “The Girl’s Room” (Icyumba cy’Umukobwa), a room that is equipped with sanitary pads, towels, painkillers, a bed, water, soap and other necessities. The concept is reportedly making a huge impact.

Way back in 2013, the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) in Rwanda passed a resolution urging all partner states to waive taxes on sanitary pads so as to increase their availability and affordability for young girls. This goal remains unachieved. However, activists are still calling on the government to reduce the 18 percent tax on a pack of sanitary pads.

Several African countries, including Kenya, Botswana and Zambia, have taken steps towards supplying free sanitary pads to girls. For instance, last year, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta signed an amendment about sanitary pads into law, less than two months before the country’s presidential election. The law said the government would give pads to all girls in public schools who have reached puberty and make sure that they have ways to dispose of the pads.

According to UNESCO, one in 10 girls in sub-Saharan Africa misses school during their period.

According to UNESCO, the UN’s education agency, one in 10 girls in sub-Saharan Africa misses school during their period. Some girls reportedly lose 20% of their education for this reason, with a high possibility of dropping out of school entirely.

Campaigners such as Nsude fear that the figures might get worse if urgent steps are not taken to provide free sanitary products to girls from poor homes across Africa.