Theresa Nyava: Worsening period poverty in Zimbabwe calls for urgent action
By Theresa Nyava
For the first time since 2009, Zimbabwe’s economy is projected to slide into a recession this year, with real GDP going down to -5.2%, the lowest economic growth rate in Africa this year.
Inflation is already skyrocketing, with the March 2019 rate reaching a ten-year high of 66.8%; although independent economist Steve Hanke says it’s as high as 208%, making it the second highest in the whole world.
While money is now chasing fewer and fewer goods in the country, as people’s real income levels are depleted and consumer spending power diminishes, some companies are also downsizing due to depressed capacity utilization while others are actually shutting down totally, leading to job losses.
The humanitarian situation is worsening in Zimbabwe, and it’s really concerning that more girls and women are failing to afford or access basic necessities such as menstrual products. The prices of period products such as sanitary wear, soap, period pain relievers, among others, have gone up significantly, leaving them as luxuries to many.
The above developments have a number of adverse consequences on humanity and the socioeconomic status of the country. Imagine how many more school girls are going to miss school monthly when they menstruate, because they don’t have sanitary wear and period pain relievers! How many will eventually drop out of school because of menstruation, with some being laughed at for staining their uniforms or school chair?
Imagine how many women are forced by desperation to use unsanitary things they do not want next to one of their most sensitive parts of their bodies – cow dung, leaves, soil, dirty rags, you name it – much to their exposure to health risks such as urinary tract infection, toxic shock syndrome, among others? What future are we really building for girls and women, if we cannot support them in their greatest hour of need but condemn them to the most inhuman and undignified treatment?
In the streets we spoke to homeless teenage girls (who we are now helping) who are bearing the brunt of period poverty in the country and we were made aware of incidences of transactional sex as some girls trade sex for money to buy period products.
One of the girls told us that such practices are happening in the bush area along the railway line above the Seke Road flyover in Harare. There, according to the girl, men pay homeless girls as young as 14 years money to have sex with them, and they are paid more if it’s unprotected sex.
Homeless girls move around a lot, looking for food and begging; therefore using rags or newspapers to manage their periods results in them developing rashes and too much discomfort. This compels some to look for money to buy proper disposable sanitary wear, so that they can move around with comfort looking for food.
But with the rising cost of both of food and sanitary wear, one 16-year old girl told us that transactional sex is now sometimes unavoidable due to desperateness. She says even rags are now difficult to come by in the streets, for them to at least manage the flow of blood when menstruating.
“Muno muma-streets hatina pekuwachira kana kugeza. Saka kana uri kumwedzi, unotoda madhende akawanda ekushandisa uchirasa. Asi mazuvano hauchatowane madhende acho pese pese. Izvi ndizvo zviri kuita kuti vamwe vasikana vaite zvekurara nevarume kunjanji uko kuti vawane mari yema pads”, said the 16-year old homeless girl, as she sniffs glue.
In Domboshava we also spoke to secondary school girls who said they get money to buy sanitary pads from their boyfriends, as their families do not afford them. This forces some of them to have sex at a young age, to please their boyfriends so that they can continue to receive money to buy period products.
Some of these girls do not have adequate sexual and reproductive health education and are at high risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, birth complications, unsafe abortions as well as early childbearing with no resources to give proper care to their children. Should it be just business as usual when the health and lives of underprivileged girls are at such risk?
As the economic conditions worsen, different groups of women can now barely afford a decent meal; how much more when it comes to sanitary wear? A recent report by the United Nations said that 5.3 million people in Zimbabwe are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and protection, including 2.9 million who are severely food insecure.
This was before the flash floods and landslides caused by Tropical Cyclone Idai, which further heightened food insecurity in the country and destroyed infrastructure and homes, with hundreds of lives being lost. Menstrual products have therefore become luxuries for many girls and women; for how can they afford sanitary pads when they are failing to afford basic food for survival?
In light of the above, this is time for government to take solid and urgent action to provide real cushion to many girls and women who are suffering because of the natural biological processes associated with their gender. They surely should not regret their gender or be disadvantaged because of it. We call upon government to allocate a portion of the 2% intermediated money transfer tax or revenue surpluses being realized in the Consolidated Revenue Fund towards improving affordability and access of period products through different interventions.
We demand that sanitary wear be provided for free to primary and secondary school girls who menstruate, homeless girls and women as well as female refugees and prisoners. There should be also a subsidy on sanitary wear to make it affordable to those who have to pay for it; with local production of period products also being supported to be efficient, sustainable and productive. Government must not just sit on the sidelines as period poverty is adversely affecting the health, wellbeing and dignity of women and girls.
It has been established that it will take more than 100 years to close the global gender gaps, if we are to continue with the current modus operandi. I am motivated by seeing these huge gender gaps closed in our lifetime, so that women are put at the centre of progress.
I have a deep love for my country and I am passionate about women claiming their power through self-care. This can only happen if we start to build a today and tomorrow that is full of empowered women and healthy girls as well as responsible boys and men. Girls and women should not regret their gender. Let us support them to manage their periods with dignity.
I envision a Zimbabwe where all girls and women can access adequate menstrual products, in an environment that is period-conducive and be treated with dignity in order for them to manage their periods in a manner that fosters human and sustainable development.
Female reproductive organs are hidden parts of the body, located down there. But that should not mean that issues affecting them should be hidden or looked down upon, or swept under garments. Let’s put menstruation on the agenda and openly discuss it to its logical conclusion.
Theresa Nyava is the founder and executive director of Sanitary Aid Zimbabwe, a registered non-profit which exists to foster menstrual equity and champion the eradication of period poverty in Zimbabwe. Support our cause by donating to our GoFundMe via the link: https://www.gofundme.com/end-period-poverty-in-zimbabwe