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

South Africa held a consultative Indaba on The Draft National Policy Framework on Sanitary Dignity that looks to provide free sanitary towels for young women and girls. In South Africa having a period is an expense that many cannot afford, and millions of girls miss school each month due to lack of sanitary pads.



Education should provide the means to transport children and their families out of poverty. And the protection, promotion and realization of constitutional rights that boasts its citizens basic needs should be at the heart of and core of any government business.

South African Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has herself decried the state of education in ‘former African schools’, highlighting the rampant lack of textbooks, inadequate school infrastructure, and the promotion of failing education department administrators as key issues. The minister described the basic education system as comprising ‘a Cinderella system deprived of resources and characterized by pockets of disasters … akin to a national crisis’

We would seek to add the lack of proper sanitation needs to the list as in South Africa, millions of girls miss school each month due to lack of sanitary pads.

Writing in 2011, Jen Thorpe calculated the cost of menstruation in South Africa and said: “In her lifetime, the average woman uses 11 000 tampons, or 22 sanitary products (pads or tampons per period). In South Africa with the average tampon costing about R1.50 each (yes, that means R33 a period, or R16 500 in her lifetime) and a pack of 10 sanitary pads costing R18 (which translates to about R36 a period, or R19 800 in her lifetime)”. 


“This means that having a period is an expense that many cannot afford. Most South Africans still live below the poverty line, which means that they must use alternative means of stemming the flow. These include using toweling or material which is rewashed. However, in some cases this too is unaffordable,” Thorpe noted.

Read: KwaZulu Natal Province Launches Free Sanitary Towels to Schoolgirls

Limited options for menstrual hygiene make it difficult for these students – like female students worldwide – to participate in school during their periods, despite the proven benefits an education can have for the health and development of girls, their families, and society

The Governments efforts towards sanitary dignity

Back in 2011 President Jacob Zuma himself promised in a State of the Nation address to provide sanitary towels to poor women. “Given our emphasis on women’s health, we will broaden the scope of reproductive health rights and provide services related to amongst others, contraception, sexually transmitted infections, teenage pregnancy and sanitary towels for the indigent,” he said. This promise still hasn’t been fulfilled.


There is evidence that effective and well-considered interventions improve school attendance levels of confidence and academic performance. @Dept_of_Women

Further to “breaking” its promise the government added insult to injury when in 2016 announced it was switching to a new brand of free condoms – flavored ones – in the hope of encouraging people to start using them again. But what the government saw as a way to encourage safer sex, these women’s rights activists could not withstand. Under the slogan “Sex is a choice and menstruation is not,” many women’s rights advocates took to social media, suggesting the government is placing sexual needs above basic health provisions for women.

National Treasury however in the same year told members of Parliament that instead of exempting a VAT tax on sanitary pads, government departments should budget for them and give them away to members of the public, including schools, for free.

Ismail Momoniat, the head of Tax and Financial Sector Policy at the National Treasury, said “Treasury was ready to support the departments of health and education to explore the possibility of providing relief by making additional funding available for the purchase and distribution of feminine hygiene and sanitary products free of charge at schools and clinic”. 


“The solution would be on the expenditure side, to make budgeting funds available either through the department of health and the health budget and sometimes to departments like education to make sanitary pads freely available, certainly at schools, universities and so on. I think the issue is then how do you target other parts of the society,” Momoniat added.

A Consultative Indaba on the Draft National Policy Framework on Sanitary Dignity

A different department; Responsible for Women; which is more directly entrusted with the task at hand is now seeking viable input on how to tackle the issue. Minister Susan Shabangu MP; Minister in the Presidency Responsible for Women is inviting Civil Society Organizations (CSO’s), Development partners, working programs and projects dealing with provision of sanitary towels to a Consultative Indaba on the Draft National Policy Framework on Sanitary Dignity that looks to provide free sanitary towels for young women and girls.

In her speech the Honorable Minister on the occasion of the Department of Women’s Budget Vote, in the National Assembly said, “The department has established a multi-departmental National Task Team to develop a policy framework for the provision of free sanitary towels to indigent girls and women. The Task Team is led by the Director-General and has since started work on a draft policy framework on government provision of sanitary dignity products”.

File picture. Afripads, handed out in a kit that includes a carrying case, are credited with making girls feel comfortable coming to school when they have their period/Kenya.
Courtesy of AFRIpad

“Our policy proposal is informed by the premise that no woman would have to make a choice between sanitary towels and a meal. Our Business Case proposes an integrated public policy to support sanitary dignity products to indigent girls and young women – learners in government schools – students in TVET Colleges and Universities – and women in the care of the State,” she added.

The indaba brought together more than 200 stakeholders; inclusive of the government, the private sector, chapter nine institutions as well as a number of non-government and community organizations; gather to discuss the processes of ensuring that the policy is implemented.


The department’s director of communication, Shavana Mushwana, explained that the financing of the sanitary towels would come from the “next fiscus budget”. The sanitary towels the department intended providing would be disposable and locally manufactured.

“Hopefully the meeting with the various stakeholders will result in the formation of a committee that will draw up a list to define who qualifies for the sanitary towels. But it is still a long process that has to go through various structures for approval before it is implemented.”

Mushwana couldn’t give an indication as to how long it would take for women to actually start receiving these sanitary products.

Read: Kenyan government to provide sanitary pads for girls in public schools

“We did not specify a timeline. The formulation process was coordinated by the department of women but included a few key national departments, such as social development, basic education, trade and industry and health.” He added that the Cabinet and Parliamentary schedule process was set, so the process had to happen within their timelines.


Keen Onlookers

One of the people interested to in the Indaba is Journalist Pontsho Pilane. Who when Livity Africa’s Project Demo initiative put out a call, asking young people which issues they would like Parliament to address in 2015 emerged as the clear winner with her #FreeToBleed campaign as a then Wits University student.

Pontsho who petitioned Parliament for free sanitary pads for all in November last year has found that there is some political willingness to provide free pads, with KwaZulu-Natal having recently started providing free pads in poorer schools. But she also discovered that changing and implementing government policy is not easy. She told TshWi-Fi, “I think attending the Indaba is vital and only then will the next step be determined. I think that pressurizing government will continue in different ways – locally and nationally. Whether it is tweeting the relevant departments or continuously writing about the issue, we need to keep it in our frame of mind.”

Another interested party is Cheryl Hlabane, the center manager of the Frida Hartley shelter for destitute women and girls in Johannesburg. She said to the City Press, “The challenge is that most school going girls come from low-income households in which sanitary wear is not a priority. When you have to choose between buying Sishebo and bread for supper, equal to the value of the sanitary towels, you are not likely to buy sanitary towels, although both are a very basic need.”

Hlabane believed that the government was very good at drawing up policies “but the reality of them being implemented and reaching the people who need them the most is very limited… They should stop focusing on literature and act.”


Many are keen to see what the results the Indaba will yield on an issue whose resolution is much overdue for girls and young women that undergo monthly indignities for a natural bodily function that occurs through no fault of their own.