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Washable pads have the potential to bring dignity to all women

Reusable sanitary towels are cheaper than regular pads and tampons but the state is failing to distribute these to schoolgirls from poor families.

Sindiswa Khubeka* from Sea Point in Cape Town will save more than R4 500 over the next five years on tampons and pads after she bought a set of washable sanitary towels for R205 in July last year.

Khubeka (36) started using the towels when she got involved in a programme that distributes the products to young women from underprivileged areas in the Western Cape. “I used to use normal pads and tampons. But then I switched to the washable pads so that I can speak from experience to young women.”

Many young women around the country do not have the choice of using “normal pads and tampons” when menstruating.

Sue Barnes, who heads Project Dignity, a nongovernmental organisation that produces and distributes ­washable pads, said she has come across many girls who miss school every month when menstruating because they cannot afford to buy sanitary towels.

One in 10 African girls misses four days of school a month during their menstrual cycle, according to the United Nations.

Long-term savings

The washable pads Barnes distributes are made of “waterproofing, layers of hydrophilic fabric and the inner layer is a hydrophobic fabric”. The pads come in a pack of nine with three pairs of press stud underwear to which the sanitary pads can be clipped.

Normal pads cost about R40 a pack and most women use two packs a month to cover both days and nights. This amounts to R960 a year as opposed to the R205 that washable pads will cost over a five-year period.

“The pack will last for up to five years, as long as the panties are only worn during menstruation,” said Barnes. But some of the girls who receive packs cannot afford underwear and wear the specialised underwear “all the time”.

In 2011, President Jacob Zuma announced that the government would provide sanitary towels to women from ­disadvantaged backgrounds.

State insufficiency

But NGOs say the government is failing to provide sanitary wear to all schoolgirls who cannot afford the monthly expense. “Government gives me no assistance. They are aware girls are not going to school while menstruating but unfortunately they have not assisted,” said Barnes.

According to activist organisation Equal Education, some schools in the Western Cape do provide sanitary towels to pupils but only “on request and at a fee of R2 and you can only ask for one”.

The department of social development provides sanitary towels through the South African Social Security Agency, which is done “when a need is identified through the Social Relief of Distress Programme”.

An alternative to reusable sanitary towels is the menstrual cup that lasts for up to 10 years, but isn’t widely available. The cup can be bought online or at selected stores in Cape Town and Johannesburg, with prices ranging between R300 and R400 a cup.

No price on dignity

The menstrual cup is made of silicone that can be folded and worn inside the vagina during menstruation for 12 hours, depending on an individual’s flow.

Research shows that menstrual cups are ecologically friendly, economical and sustainable. When the cup is full, it can be removed and the contents emptied into the toilet. The cup is then wiped or rinsed with water and reinserted.

Barnes said: “The provision of free sanitary protection to women and girls who cannot afford it puts them in charge of their lives and gives them dignity, but many are still not afforded this dignity.”

* Not her real name

Persomé Oliphant is a Bhekisisa fellow sponsored by the United Nations Population Fund.