By Moses Mugugunyeki
Fifteen-year-old Abigail Rukuvo [not her real name] and her family of four, share a single room with a few belongings piled in a corner in Chitungwiza’s St Mary’s suburb.
There is no tap water in and outside their backyard bungalow so they have to fetch the precious liquid from an unprotected well in the neighbourhood.
Residents of this forsaken settlement have to cope with age-old dilapidated ancient houses in an area, which appears to have long gone outside the local authority’s radar as running water has become a thing of the past.
In fact, St Mary’s has over the years become synonymous with poverty, disease and crime.
Many families here live below the poverty datum line and are susceptible to infectious diseases such as TB, cholera, dysentery and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
For Rukuvo, the major face-up to her adolescent life has been managing her period.
She is among hordes of women and adolescent girls affected by period poverty globally.
According to the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef), roughly half of the female population, around 26 % of the global population, is of reproductive age.
Ever since she started having periods, Rukuvo has had a torrid time in accessing sanitary products as well as safe and hygienic spaces in which to use them.
“This is where we stay with my father and mother as well as my two brothers. We don’t have tap water, so we fetch it from a well,” she said, pointing to an uncovered well just a few houses away.
“I have always encountered problems when I have periods. There is no water and changing sanitary pads in the house is difficult since my father is always in the room. He is sick and bed-ridden.”
Therefore, managing periods at home is a major challenge for Rukuvo and many other women and adolescent girls who lack basic water and sanitation facilities at home.
Unicef says globally, 2,3 billion people lack basic sanitation services and in the least developed countries, only 27% of the population has a hand-washing facility with water and soap at home.
“During the early days of my adolescence, I did not know what to do with my period. When I went to school, I would spoil my uniform and sometimes I would stay home. At home it was not that easy as well,” she said.
“The other issue was that I did not have the sanitary pads. When I talked to my mother she would tell me that there was no money. My father left his job when I was young and ever since our mother is the bread winner from her vending business.
“As a result, I would use off-the-cuff methods like torn pieces of clothes or rugs to manage my periods.”
Rukuvo said periods sometimes made her miss school as she could not stand the shame and embarrassment at school.
According to Action Aid, one in 10 girls in Africa miss school because they don’t have access to menstrual products, or because there aren’t safe private toilets to use at school.
Rukuvo said her father was not forthcoming when it comes to menstrual hygiene support.
“I have seen my mother going through difficult times on her own when she is having periods. As for me, I had my mother on my side and she is so supportive throughout my period.
“My brothers are still young, but I believe they should be taught something on sexual and reproductive health, including menstrual hygiene if they are to have an appreciation on what real goes on,” she said.
Speaking at the commemorations to mark Menstrual Hygiene Day last week, Day For Girls country director Chipo Chikomo said period poverty was prevalent in Zimbabwe and one way of ending it is by involving men in menstrual hygiene management.
“Today is an important day for all us as we gather and reflect on one important aspect of life — menstruation.
“One such important aspect as we create awareness is the need to break the silence around menstruation. This subject is shrouded with stigma,” Chikomo said.
“It’s now time for action. Time to bring men on board in as far as menstrual hygiene management is concerned. Men are key, their involvement will bring the change of perception in society. Men will bring change of perception in politics in as far as managing menstruation is concerned.
“Men have a role to play in water provision in communities and when they get to understand menstrual hygiene, they will chip in a big way.”
Chikomo said there was need to push for the local manufacturing of sanitary wear.
“Most of these sanitary wear is imported. Fortunately, government gave duty exemption on sanitary wear, but we believe it’s not enough. It’s now time to fund the local manufacturing of sanitary wear,” she said.
Renowned regional health journalist and menstrual justice activist Pontsho Pilane concurred, saying one way of erasing the stigma around menstruation was to bring men on board.
“Men should be involved in menstrual hygiene management because they can help in destigmatising and removing the shame that has been attached to menstruation,” said Pilane, famed for the 2015 #FreeToBleed campaign in South Africa.
“We live in a society that considers menstruation to be a dirty secret and if men become allies, this can go a long way into changing these conservative views.
“Imagine a world where boys know how the biological process of menstruation works. They’d be able to support the women and girls, who menstruate in their life, and be able to empathise while understanding how differently people are affected by menstruation.”
Pilane, who presented a policy proposal to the South African parliament demanding free sanitary pads for people, who menstruate that saw then South African Finance minister Tito Mboweni in 2018 announcing tax exemption on disposable sanitary pads in that country, said one of the greatest challenges in Africa was the high cost of menstrual manament products.
“The levels of poverty and equality mean that some cannot even afford to buy themselves sanitary pads,” she said.
“This has social, mental and physiological implications. Using rugs, leaves and any other materials except proper sanitary products could cause infections and it also means the menstrual blood is not adequately absorbed. These are some of the ways not having pads can be detrimental.”
She said governments must prioritise and implement policies and laws that alleviate period poverty — free menstrual products for all who menstruate, removing taxes on the products, promoting reusable options and implementing period leave.
“Governments should pass laws and implement policies that acknowledge menstruation and support those that go through it. This is the first step toward menstrual justice,” Pilane said.
The Zimbabwe Red Cross Society (ZRCS) through its youth development-run sexual and reproductive health rights drive has incorporated menstrual health management in its programming.
According to ZRCS youth officer Silethemba Maphosa, they are targeting marginalised communities in Mashonaland West, Midlands and Mashonaland Central provinces after the realisation that adolescent girls lacked guidance and access to menstrual management as well as sanitary hygiene which leaves them vulnerable during their menstrual days.
“We have been reaching out to communities in three provinces through our sexual and reproductive health rights youth initiative. We have been donating sanitary wear to vulnerable girls and young women in these communities,” Maphosa said.
“In addition to the donations, we held workshops on menstrual hygiene where we engaged both males and females.”
Maphosa said the other component of the menstrual hygiene management drive was breaking the stigma around menstruation.
“We also tackled discrimination in schools and communities and in these conversations we made sure we include males so that they understood the importance of menstruation and why they should not ridicule girls and women when they go through their periods,” she said.
In an effort to support young girls through their periods, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is supporting Sista2Sista clubs in order to assist young girls to prepare and manage their menstrual health.
Launched in 2013, the Sista2Sista programme offers a safe place where adolescent girls can speak with mentors and each other about life experiences. Girls in the clubs learn about sexual and reproductive health and rights – including menstrual health management, financial literacy and how to navigate difficult social situations, including coercive sexual relationships.
Former Chivi South MP and businessman Killer Zivhu, through the Zivhu Foundation, is running an ambitious sanitary wear project where he is donating sanitary pads to disadvantaged girls and women across the country.
“I started this sanitary wear project with the hope of assisting marginalised women and girls in the country. This was after I realised that more women than men live in poverty, they cannot afford sanitary pads and they don’t have access to hygiene facilities,” Zivhu said.
“Some girls and women use rugs, pieces of cloth while others pick up the raw cotton from the fields since they cannot afford to buy the pads. As Zivhu Foundation, we are reaching out to these vulnerable groups of people with pads and developmental projects that are aimed at addressing the water and sanitation challenges in communities.”
Zivhu on Friday distributed hundreds of sanitary pads to girls in schools in Ward 26 in Chivi South.
For Rukuvo, she hopes one day the local authority will address the water and sanitation problems in her area.
As of sanitary wear, she said they are receiving disposable and reusable sanitary pads from a certain organisation.
However, she bemoaned stigma associated with menstruation.