Government has provided a $200 million facility in the 2020 National Budget towards the provision of free sanitary-wear for primary and secondary schoolgirls from less privileged backgrounds.
Gender and Community Editor, Fatima Bulla (FB), interviewed chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Primary and Secondary Education, Ms Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga (PM), who has been lobbying for girls and women health rights.
We publish excerpts of the interview.
F.B: For years, you have been advocating for a National Budget to cater for girls and women rights. In presenting the national revenue and expenditure document for 2020, Finance and Economic Development Minister, Professor Mthuli Ncube provided $200 million towards that cause. Do you feel your advocacy bid has finally yielded results?
P.M: Yes, it has been years of struggle around sanitary-wear. I came into Parliament in 2000, so it is almost two decades of a conversation around issues of sanitary-wear.
I had hoped that, this time around, we would have removed duty, get some subsidy of some sort, but I was pleasantly surprised that we actually had a budgetary allocation for sanitary wear for primary and secondary schools learners. It was a good surprise. I think in the SADC region, we are probably the first country to do that at a national level. In Africa, the one other country that has gone to the level of setting aside resources for sanitary-wear at national level, is Kenya.
F.B: Are you satisfied with the processes of rolling out the sanitary-wear project?
P.M: I am upset. The first problem is that the disbursement of the $200 million has not been done, which is a disappointment. Secondly, when the money came in, one of the things I said was that this (sanitary-wear) is not perishable. Sanitary-wear is not like tomatoes or vegetables which, if not consumed, will go bad.
I had hoped that we get the $200 million and immediately get sanitary-wear.
There was a lot of conversation about how this project would create employment, but my main concern was to immediately get the wear to the intended beneficiaries.
I would have expected the ministry to release, say, $100 million and task suppliers to find the most sustainable and reusable sanitary-wear.
One of the revolutionary products that we now have is a sanitary panty. It is both a panty and a sanitary product. We should have started distributing the funds this month.
We are going to hold a strategic meeting in the first week of February with officials from the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education.
I am hoping that is where I am going to get answers. But, generally, I am quite disappointed because the minister and the Secretary for Finance and Economic Development have gone way beyond our expectations and the funds remain unused. I understand they cannot disburse the money where there is no plan.
F.B: What sustainable mechanism do you think can be used to solve the challenge of sanitarywear?
P.M: If one gets a sanitary panty, we know it goes for two to three years. There are panties and what they call butterfly cups, some of them can last up to 10 years. I understand that for the younger girls, the butterfly cups may not be the best because people have issues with insertion and things like that.
F.B: Do you think there is national appreciation on the need to provide sanitarywear as a basic for girls and women?
P.M: I do not think so. It is not just at Government level, but at all levels of the society.
One thing that I found fascinating when I asked Finance and Economic Development permanent secretary (George) Guvamatanga how we moved from where Government was not taking us seriously to where Government set aside money, he said: “You were pushing and also my daughter was pushing.”
I thought that was really fascinating because he said: “My daughter kept asking why we were not supporting issues of sanitarywear.”
Sometimes I follow social media debates where people tell each other off.
If somebody says: “Our MP (Member of Parliament) pushed for sanitarywear.” Someone will reply saying: “Seriously, sanitarywear in all these economic problems we have? What is sanitarywear?”
So there is no appreciation of just how big the issue of sanitarywear is. Our girls and even adults are using newspapers and cowdung during their cycles. It is sad to think that as a nation with a 54 percent female population we are failing to prioritise provision of affordable sanitarywear.
F.B: You once brought to the National Assembly, some sanitarywear, underwear and an infant in a bid to express the importance of women issues, has your push produced the intended results?
P.M: At some level yes. I was not in the House when the Budget Statement was presented. I actually cried because this is an issue that I have been pushing for many years.
Literally, when I came into the House — as a young person in 2000 — that has always been my fight. So learning that Government had actually acknowledged that this sanitary wear issue is important and setting aside resources raised my emotions. Yes, it has been long, but we have got to a point where it has happened.
Sideways, the issue of the infant has seen the creation of space in the new Parliament Building where nursing mothers will use.
Even in the current building, the Speaker set asise a room for nursing mothers to take their children.
I can walk away and gladly say I did my part.
I can look at the Education Amendment Bill which will offer free education. We are waiting for it to be signed. If you go back to The Hansard, you can see the proposals that I made.
Of course, they were on behalf of my committee, but also because of the passion that I have in ensuring girls go to school.
It will be free education for everybody, but I know that the majority of the beneficiaries will be girls. I think I have done what I can. There have been positive responses, but the question is implementation.
Sometimes I sit back and say to myself: “You know what Priscilla, perhaps the good thing is you have pushed this to a certain level some people should now take it and push for its implementation.”
F.B: Do you feel your fellow female legislators have lobbied enough for women issues?
PM: I have a different view. When you say there are people in a place who are supposed to push for things, I think the question should be for both.
If we are going to evaluate what good women have done, surely let’s evaluate what good men have done.
It should be a general question about whether the legislative arm has done what is required of it or not? Has the executive done what is required of it?
From there we can then evaluate. Butm unfortunately, people always find it easier to ask that question in relation to women.
My second answer is that, over time, I think we are unfairly judging women and the media is to blame for that.
In Parliament, we all debate issues, but coverage is given to males ahead of females.
It is not as if women don’t speak. They just don’t make news as far as the media is concerned. I have survived the media bias, maybe because I am just radical and do things that draw media attention. But there are women who have stood up and made a point without necessarily being radical.
I have been in that Parliament and listened to women speak about women issues, maternal issues, school fees, uniforms, water, economy and hunger, but they are not newsmakers.
FB: It’s now almost 20 years for you in Parliament, what are your milestones?
PM: I think one of it is just general. Outside Margaret Dongo, the system had made it difficult for females in Parliament to stand up and be known. If there is anything, it is to debunk the myth that women can’t survive in Parliament or in a political system.
I walk in the streets, I get into places and if I introduce myself, people give recognition and acknowledge my presence. It may not be because they love me, but it is an acknowledgement to say; we know you have been in this place.
I don’t think anybody can sit back and say Priscilla came into a political field and went quietly. Just like no one can say Margaret Dongo came into a political field and went quietly.
There was a time issues of Matabeleland were not debated or discussed in Parliament.
Even just the word “Gukurahundi”, there was a time one could not speak about it, it was scary. Now Gukurahundi is a general conversation, people can talk about it, people can say how they feel. The issue may not have been resolved, I may not see it in my lifetime being resolved, but I can sit back and say we went over that metal block where there were no conversations about it.
Then of course women issues; sanitary wear and issues around free education, which I have added a voice to. There are, however, areas that I feel bad I have not done much.
Conditions of service for teachers will always remain something that I feel I did not deliver on, but bringing those issues to the fore has been one of the things that I would say is a milestone. All put together, I think as a feminist, I have done well. This will show the world that I am a good woman and leader.
If I were to walk out of Parliament today, and I am seriously thinking about it, it would be because of circumstances that have pushed me.
I have done my best and one day people should wake up to see a story with a headline: “Priscilla hangs up boots”. The Sunday Mail