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An unsanitary state of affairs

The average amount of blood lost in a menstruation is about 35 millilitres, which means that if a woman has 12 periods a year, she loses about half a litre of blood a year for about 30 years. The age at which women start menstruating is getting younger and younger, meaning that girls attending primary school generally have their period from about 11 years old until they are in their forties.

The result: This may not feel significant to you, and those of you who are squeamish about blood can relax because the gory details are finished for now. What is obvious from this drop-by-drop analysis of women’s menstrual cycles is that they use a lot of blood. This blood must be “managed” for want of a less sterile world. This means that women must use some form of sanitary product to stem the flow so that they can continue with their lives as expected. The options: tampons and sanitary pads.

The result: In her lifetime, the average woman uses 11 000 tampons, or 22 sanitary products (pads or tampons per period). In South Africa with the average tampon costing about R1.50 each (yes, that means R33 a period, or R16 500 in her lifetime) and a pack of 10 sanitary pads costing R18 (which translates to about R36 a period, or R19 800 in her lifetime). This means that having a period is an expense that many cannot afford. Most South Africans still live below the poverty line, which means that they must use alternative means of stemming the flow. These include using towelling or material which is rewashed. However, in some cases this too is unaffordable.

The result: According to the department of health it’s school absenteeism for up to one week a month for young girls. School ablution facilities in SA aren’t in an excellent state of repair, and the cost of sanitary towels and tampons means that often young women resort to the use of other options such as sponges, which are not hygienic. This significant absence from school (nearly a quarter of the entire year and even more so of the academic year) leads many girls to drop out of school.

The result: A natural part of their growth and development is limiting another part of their growth and development because of economic disempowerment. What happens when young girls drop out of school is that they lose access to other forms of economic empowerment and thus remain trapped in situations of dependence, which are linked to inability to negotiate safe sexual relations, or to leave violent relationships.

The solution: According to the ANCYL and more recently according to President Zuma the state will provide free sanitary towels to women who cannot afford them — 51% of the population is female, and if we say that half of those women cannot afford sanitary ware (about 12.83 million women), this will cost the national government R5 542 560 000 a year. That is a fairly significant amount of money. This is not only expensive but it is also terrible for the environment with most of these tampons and pads ending up in landfills (if you bin them) or the ocean (if you flush them). While I commend the ANCYL and the Presidency for recognising that women’s access to sanitation should be a right, and not a privilege, I think there is a smarter solution.

The smarter and environmentally friendly solution: The Mooncup. The Mooncup is a silicon cup that can be inserted into the vagina, emptied, rinsed and reused for a number of years. Made from medical grade silicone, the Mooncup is latex-free and contains no dyes, toxins or bleaches (which are never great for your vagina). It can last between five and 10 years. It is available in South Africa, and it sells for about R400.

Let’s do the maths: R400 for 10 years = R40 a year (or slightly more than one box of pads/tampons). So to purchase Mooncups for the same 12.83 million women would cost an initial R5 132 000 000, but this cost would cover the next 10 years for those women. In addition, it is better for the environment because it is reusable.

It must be noted that the fact we are having this discussion at all is significant and I truly commend those in government for opening the door to discussion, and many women’s eyes to the luxuries they don’t even realise they have. Nevertheless, I think it is worth investigating the Mooncup as an alternative. Don’t you?

Here is a link to a list of stockists of the Mooncup in South Africa.

Author

  • Jennifer is a feminist, activist and advocate for women's rights. She has a Masters in Politics from Rhodes University, and a Masters in Creative Writing from UCT. In 2010 she started a women's writing project called 'My First Time'. It focuses on women's stories of significant first time experiences. Buy the book on the site http://myfirsttimesa.com or via Modjaji Books. Jen's first novel, The Peculiars, came out in February 2016 and is published by Penguin. Get it in good book stores, and on Takealot.com