I vaguely remember, as a 12-year-old, all the senior primary school girls being beckoned to a little classroom for the dreaded banter about menstruation. Although some of the other girls had already started menstruating, you could see the embarrassment in all our faces as a woman flashed a sanitary pad and explained how to use it. I clearly recall asking myself why I could not just grow up without all the complications.
But human biology does not work this way.
When I started my periods, my parents made provisions every month so that I would never have to worry about soiled underwear. Even though these few days of the month were often cringe worthy – the cramps, making sure I replaced an old pad with a new one, and just knowing that I was carrying this foreign item close to my ‘lady parts’ – I was always prepared and would go about my business fret-free.
But imagine what this process must feel like for a girl who has never seen or heard of a sanitary pad during her pubescent years; a girl who simply cannot afford this relief during her period.
When an article in a local daily newspaper reported that rural girls were using cow dung for their periods, this illustrated the grave reality of lack of access. Additionally, women at Chingwizi transit camp were reported to be using tree leaves as sanitary wear in what was a desperate situation following the flooding of Tokwe Mukosi Dam which left thousands displaced early last year.
According to a local company, My Pads which produces reusable sanitary products, 44% of rural shops do not sell any sanitary products. As such, some of girls in these areas do not go to school during their periods. And if a girl is absent for three days of school a month that equates to 36 days a year and 18% of her schooling in a year.
Jenny Wall, My Pads’ Company’s Director, explains that the initiative came about three and a half years ago, as she and her family began to look into moving back to Zimbabwe from England. Desperately looking for cloth nappies for her daughter because she did not want to go the disposable diaper route, she stumbled on a number of online sites in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and England that made reusable sanitary products.
In her search, she started encountering a host of articles about how girls from Asia and Africa, particularly Zimbabwe, were struggling due to the lack of adequate sanitary ware. Drawn in but feeling like it was not the right time to start a business, she began to save all information she encountered.
“Towards 2011, I was having coffee with some friends and they just said I should just do it,” recounts Wall. “It felt right and my children were a little bit older and they did not need me as much, so I started testing out different designs.”
In 2013, Wall received funding from SNV Netherlands Development Organisation to do a feasibility study for the project, a task that involved going into high density areas and asking women if they would use reusable pads.
The study revealed that there was indeed a market and SNV agreed to fund her to build the business by covering costs for research, laboratory testing, materials design and training.
Coming in a pack of five, the patented pads are made of three layers of fleece and a water-proof material that catches any leaks. With careful and gentle washing as per instructions, the pads can be replaced every 12–18 months for good hygiene. The quality control body, the Standard Association of Zimbabwe (SAZ) has classified the pad as a heavy flow pad that can hold more that 30ml of liquid. My Pads is also on the SAZ technical committee, which is working on creating standards control for disposable and reusable pads.
“From our research, a woman spends an average of US$ 2 a month to buy disposable pads or cotton wool,” notes Wall. “This is US$ 24 per year, compared to buying a pack of five for US$5 for a whole year. You have saved US$19 dollars, which is a school’s term fees for some.”
But she cautions that even coming up with that US$5 can be hard for those living in poor communities. As such, she intends to add a donation facility where organisations and individuals can make contributions meant for the communities that cannot afford the pads.
The debate around using either organic or disposable female hygiene products also stems from a health and environmental view point. Some disposable pads and tampons are said to contain harmful chemicals namely, dioxins and rayon, which can be absorbed through the skin in the genital area. Dioxins have been classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as part of a group of dangerous chemicals. According to the world body, dioxins have been linked to the damage of the immune system, the nervous system, the endocrine system and reproductive functions. Rayon which is used to enhance the pads’ absorption has been said to cause rashes and skin irritation in the genital areas.
Also, tampon use has been linked to a condition called, Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), where normally harmless bacteria on the skin find their way into the blood stream and release toxins. Wearing a tampon for a long stretch of time and using high absorbent tampons can increase the chance of getting TSS. Symptoms can include nausea, diarrhoea, dizziness, muscle aches, drops in blood pressure and in some cases, shock, kidney and liver failure.
The reusable products do not contain any chemicals, making them a safer option. According to Wall, Zimbabwe sells on average 10 million disposable sanitary pads per month. These go into our landfills as waste and pose an ecological concern, exposing the environment to toxic chemicals. Along with plastic diapers, disposable sanitary ware take hundreds of years to break down. Women’s empowerment initiative, Eco Femme says sanitary pads take 500-800 years to decompose. Largely because of a collapse in waste collection services in Zimbabwe, some women have resorted to burning the disposable products and as a result, releasing harmful chemicals into the air.
As with many new products, criticism is inevitable. Responding to an online article that featured the company’s product, one reader stated that the pads were unsafe and that everyone should stay away from using them, while another commenter was of the opinion that using the product represented a step backwards.
“Disposable pads have only been around for the last hundred years and yet people have learnt to trust them so much,” says Wall who says she understands how reusable pads can be seen as retrogressive. “But for thousands of years before that, we used cloth and we all survived.”
Currently establishing distribution channels, My Pads has identified agents and is working in Kuwadzana, Kambuzuma Section 2, Mufakose, Mbare, Epworth Overspill, Machipisa, Dzivarasekwa, Chitungwiza, Warren Park and Beatrice. Wall says she is also in the process of signing up larger distribution companies that have their own networks of agents.
Pearls, Heels and Dreams
Another local establishment, Pearls, Heels and Dreams (PHND) launched a campaign in July last year called Sponsor a Girl for a Year – Unobvepi/Uvelaphi through which they distribute reusable sanitary pads to distressed communities.
The company’s core business is focused on facilitating ‘dream hubs’ for girls to talk through self esteem issues and gain career guidance. But as Co-Founder, Leone Nezi, notes, PHND realised that it was futile to tell a girl about her future and the importance of going to school if she does not have access to basic things like sanitary ware.
“Trying to tell a girl to have a vision if she has lost her self esteem and is finding it hard to embrace womanhood then becomes a challenge,” says Nezi. “So we decided to distribute sanitary ware with the help of companies that produce reusable pads,” explains Nezi.
The campaign has seen the team help girls in Hopley Farm, Mbare, Tafara, Kuwadzana, Dzivarasekwa, and recently, Hurungwe and Marondera.
I recently received a pack of My Pads reusable pads and sampled them during a cycle. The packaging comes with instructions indicating how one should use and take care of the pads. The fleece is soft and more comfortable, compared to the disposable pads that have a plastic make-up. What did take time to get used to was washing my own blood and the time you need to wash them, something you do not have to worry about with disposable pads as you can throw them away after use. But as a first time user, I am sold on the idea of having an option, and standby measure during my periods.
So, here is to two companies that are making a difference and helping to restore dignity to young women in Zimbabwe.
First photograph is courtesy Jenny Wall.