Nelisiwe is from a poor family and the little money they have is to buy food. She does not have money to buy sanitary pads. But she and her mother have come up with a plan. Her mother, Boniwe Mtungwana, explains how they deal with the problem. "Nelisiwe understands that we are poor. So I taught her to use a black cloth that she washes and reuses. Sometimes I make pads for her by sewing up the cloth in a pad shape," she explains. "They sometimes cause a rash, but this is all we can do."
Boniwe says her daughter menstruates for seven days. "For the first three days I make her stay at home because this is the time she is bleeding heavily and she cannot take care of herself properly." This means three days in a month young Nelisiwe misses school.
Boniwe says it came as a shock when Nelisiwe began menstruating at 11. Menstruating at an early age is normal according to Sister Sierra Mnangalawa, a registered nurse who visits rural areas in KwaZulu-Natal. She educates girls about menstruation. She once met a girl who began menstruating at the age of eight. She knows all too well the problem of menstruating young girls and poverty. "A lot of girls use pieces of cloth (isidwedwe), toilet paper or newspaper due to poverty. I have come across Aids orphans with no means of buying pads."
Families frown on a girl who starts menstruating at an early age because they believe the child is sexually active or they see it as a curse. Illiteracy plays a big role in these myths and beliefs. Sister Sierra says children menstruate early because of the refined foods they eat, body size and other unknown reasons.
Melissa Weldrick, who runs the Always About You Puberty Programme in the Eastern Cape, says that every day she meets girls who are not able to afford pads. According to Melissa, in the five years she has worked as a field worker teaching girls about menstruation, nothing has changed. She says young girls around the country are experiencing the same problems as Nelisiwe. "Many of the girls stay at home while they are menstruating. Girls in the Cape call the pieces of cloth 'lappies'. Some use toilet paper or even newspaper as a last resort."
Nelisiwe's problems are similar to thousands of other girls in schools around the country who suffer because of this natural process. Menstruation is the release of blood and tissue through the vagina that occurs as part of the normal menstrual cycle. On average, menstruation happens every 28 days and stops only when a woman is pregnant, sick or she starts menopause.
Princess Dineka, a guidance teacher at Thaba Jabula Secondary School in Soweto, says the problems faced by Nelisiwe are the same at their school. "Only about 40% of the girls can afford sanitary towels (pads). There are five girls in our school who cannot even buy toilet paper to use as pads. They use cloth and many use newspaper. We encourage girls to come up with R10 a month to buy pads.
"Many of the children at our school come from the squatter camps and the poverty levels are high," she says.
The cheapest pads cost about R8 a packet. On average, a woman will need two or three packets of pads a month, which will cost R24 a month.
As women know, sometimes neither pads nor toilet paper or pieces of cloth can prevent "an accident". What happens if a school-going child has an "accident"? "In an emergency we send her home to wash. If we have pads at school, then we will give it to the girls," says Princess. Both the Health Department and the Education Department say they are not responsible for ensuring that girls have access to pads when menstruating.
Maseiso Mhlambiso, a teacher at a school in Mount Fletcher, Eastern Cape, says the girls at her school are taught about menstruation in a subject called life orientation. "We always have children coming to say they have started menstruating. In such cases we send them home early. The school does not provide sanitary towels."
Sarah Lebeko, public relations manager at Proctor and Gamble, which makes sanitary wear, says the company did have a social responsibly programme to deal specifically with providing pads for girls who could not afford to buy them. "We have other social responsibility programmes in place. We have begun a programme in Kenya where poverty-stricken girls are provided with pads. We decided to start in Kenya because we realised that the levels of poverty were much higher than in South Africa."
Psychologist Cynthia Memela says parents should talk to with their children about menstruation. How a parent communicates about menstruation determines how the child will deal with it. "Unfortunately, some parents still have difficulties talking to their children, particularly on matters that are sexual in nature. Most of what they (the children) know is obtained from their friends on the playground, which is laced with myths."
Cynthia says the girls who are unable to buy pads may feel
shame and confusion. It is difficult enough for girls to start periods at a young age without having to deal with this issue.
A young girl still wants to play and behave like a child but menstruation might be a hindrance. "Worse still is when there are whispers among the family members about so-and-so who has received her 'first menses' and is now a woman," says Cynthia.
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What are your thoughts on this topic? Should the government be taking a more proactive role in supplying impoverished women with tampons and pads?