Calls to government from activists and lobby groups for sanitary pads to be provided to impoverished schoolgirls have finally been taken up by the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) provincial government.
This week, there was a chorus of approval on Twitter and Facebook for the KZN education department, which is now providing sanitary pads to indigent schools in the province. The Huffington Post South Africa confirmed with the department's chief director of social enrichment programmes Gugulethu Madlala that the project is underway.
According to Madlala, under the current financial year funds and resources have been made available to provide pads for 2,992 selected schools in quintiles 1 to 4 (these are the poorest schools) and plans to reach more schools in the next financial year beginning in April are underway. The quintile system in South Africa places schools into groups from one to five‚ and subsidises them accordingly. Schools in quintiles one to three receive more government funds and usually do not charge school fees.
Madlala says that the distribution of the sanitary pads is calculated at one pack of 12 pads per month per girl in grades 4 to 12 within the selected schools. This is to be closely monitored against the schools' attendance register, says Madlala. She says that the pads will be delivered to the schools on a month-to-month basis with a delivery note that has to be signed and stamped by a school official who must verify the quantities. The pads are to be administered to each class with a form that must be signed upon receipt by each girl. At the end of each month, this is to be given to the department together with the attendance register.
Although there is not enough data to confirm the statistic that more than 6,3 million schoolchildren in South Africa missed classes each month because they could not afford sanitary pads, much attention was given to the possibility that menstruating children did not have access to pads. They resort to methods such as using tree-bark or sandbags covered in cloth or paper, which can result in adverse health implications.
While many corporates, NGOs, student societies and activist groups have banded together to host pad drives (most notably between 2015 and 2016), all were in agreement that drives were inadequate as they were short-term and limited in their reach in the face of a pervasive problem. Various people appealed to the government to provide free sanitary pads, as free condoms are administered by the government in public bathrooms and at border posts.
The HuffPost SA could not confirm with other provincial departments if they plan to join the initiative.
But while the campaign seems encouraging, others are less optimistic, mostly due to government's previous empty promises about free sanitary pads.
In 2011, President Jacob Zuma promised in his State of the Nation Address to "provide services related to... sanitary towels for the indigent". Not long after this, the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities (now renamed the Department of Women) announced that it would launch the Sanitary Dignity Campaign to provide sanitary pads to women who could not afford them. According to Africa Check, the department referred questions about the status of the policy to the Department of Social Development. The department in turn said that the department occasionally provided free sanitary products but did not have a formal policy or programme in place and could not say how many women and girls had received free sanitary products.
Sandra Millar, founder of Dignity Dreams, an NGO that makes and distributes washable and reusable sanitary wear to impoverished communities all over the country
Millar cautiously welcomed the KZN initiative: "My sincere hope is that it does work, but I'm not holding my breath... I'm tired of hearing these empty promises. I fear that those pads will never reach those girls." Millar says she has "never met a girl who had been given a pack of sanitary pads from the Sanitary Dignity Campaign".