Dealing with the the negative impact of undignified menstruation experiences at the coalface is a harsh reality for school teachers and those who lead community intervention projects.

We explore the insights, experiences and opinions of two women who are leading intervention initiatives in their respective communities to preserve sanitary dignity of schoolgirls.

Learners on the Cape Flats need holistic health education

erica-jacobsThere has been increased recognition that sanitary dignity cannot be isolated from sanitation, women’s health and education, but that it does deserve urgent attention as an issue on its own.

Driving menstruation dignity intervention is an organisation called RUCDI – the Ravensmead, Uitsig, Cravenby, Development Initiative. Established in 2012, the organisation’s aim is to drive the development and strengthening of social capital of the community and surrounding areas, to develop capacity, resources and campaigns that address those needs. 

The sanitary towel drive was initiated in response to girls’ absenteeism rates due to lack of sanitary products.  The school is currently recruiting and campaigning for support.  

In this interview with Erica Jacobs, who started the initiative, we gain more insight into the issue:

If you were in government, how would you tackle sanitary dignity issues in South Africa?

I would like to be the National Minister of Education to promulgate a bill to make health services part of education, like having school nurses back in schools. Health should be a part of the education journey. Services and prevention services would be instituted to tackle issues at an early age. We need to start working with 8 – 14-year-olds to educate them on menstrual health and sexual education so by the time they are 15 they have the support, and are aware of care and prevention methods.

Also government has a bigger role to play in prioritising women. There are not enough conversations around the issue of menstruation and affordability of sanitary wear. An increased dialogue about this is needed at government level.

In your years of dealing with the sanitary dignity issue, what would be a solution to the problem we face in South Africa?

We need health and adolescent youth-friendly services. Health services for women must be looked at holistically. Sexual health education to combat pregnancies, HIV, sexual reproductive as a health – sanitary care is part of that. At a global level, not enough is being done at tackling the issue holistically.

I would look at a product that can be used multiple times, for example the cup and washable pads. Look at the most cost effective, environmentally friendly options as well.

Why do you think that this issue has not received the attention it deserves?

It is time consuming and most of us who tackle this particular issue have full-time jobs.

From a health perspective it is not seen as life-threatening. There is no risk of loss of life. Condoms are freely distributed because it is part of the HIV prevention programme. Menstruation doesn’t get the attention because in a contraceptive campaign the focus is on not falling pregnant, not on menstrual health. But, we need to remember that shame and dignity is invisible and although not life threatening is still damaging the self-esteem.

Have you formed any partnerships with other organisations?

Not-for-profit organisations that assist other schools with sanitary towels often ask if Ravensmead is close to Khayelitsha. And they won’t get involved because Ravensmead is not a township area. It is an urban area, but it doesn’t mean that people are not living in poverty. There is a perception that in areas where coloured and white people live there is no need to support the sanitary needs of women and girls.

What are your focus areas where other can get involved, or even get advice on how to start similar projects to what you and RUCDI do?

Our main focus is reviving the sanitary towel donation drive at Ravensmead High. Our target is to collect 2,000 packets of sanitary towels between October and March next year. All donations can be delivered to Esmeralda Willems.  She is contactable on her mobile, number 076 427 7310 or via e-mail, esmeraldawillems@gmail.com.  

If you would like to follow the progress of RUCDI’s campaign, can connect with the alumni association on Twitter, the handle is @ravypeople.

Dogtertjie Projek Kameeldrift

cherise-albertseBased in Gauteng, Cherise Albertse, who runs the Dogtertjie Projek Kameeldrift project,  provides 68 underprivileged girls with “care packages” on a monthly basis.  These packages contain sanitary towels and a number of other essential personal hygiene items.   

She focuses on the sanitary dignity needs of poor girls in the Hartebeespoort area  Earlier this year, the suicide of two girls led Cherise to start her dignity initiative.  She describes it as a heartbreaking event that shook her to her core.

What inspired you to help girls in your area?

When I heard about the two girls who committed suicide because they didn’t have access to sanitary towels. That was when I knew that I needed to make a difference. I asked myself: “What if it was my daughter needing toiletries?”

How many girls do you assist on a monthly basis?

We provide 68 care packages a month to 48 multi-racial girls in Pretoria and 20 poor white girls in Hartbeespoort. We provide these with the help of donors.

If you were in government, how would you tackle sanitary dignity issues in South Africa?

I would create national awareness on this tremendous issue in South Africa and increase opportunities for menstruation health-related issues, and then follow that through with the public participation for input so it becomes an inclusive approach to manage solutions.  

In your years of dealing with this issue, what would be a solution to this problem we face in South Africa? 

Based on the needs identified with public participation, I would offer sanitary products for free by distributing the products at schools, rural areas and public places. I know washable pads are popular at the moment, but it doesn’t help giving a girl washable pads to use if at home the family doesn’t even have enough water for daily uses like cooking, dishes, bathing etc.

What are your daily struggles and wins?

My daily struggles are mainly around getting enough donations per month to be able to supply to our existing base of girls and to expand our reach of the initiative.  We really want to reach more children of all races in the area.  A win for me is knowing that I get to make a difference in a young girl’s life.

Why do you think that this issue has not received the attention it deserves?

Not enough awareness is being created about the utter humiliation girls face when they are told a loaf of bread is more important than their dignity.  Two girls committed suicide due to lack of access and no one knew their story.  Girls miss school due to the shortage of sanitary ware. This is really a silent epidemic in South Africa across all races.

What are your focus areas now and what are your goals for the next year?  

Our focus at the moment is to get as many donors on board as possible to supply toiletries to cover all your girls.  I personally fund 15 girls, because we are in need of 15 donors and we don’t want to turn girls away.  On a monthly basis we need at least 1,020 to 1,360 pads per month.

Donors who would like to support the Dogtertjie Projek Kameeldrift can contact Cherise Albertse on 076 521 8365 or via cherise.albertse@gmail.com.  Alternatively connect on the Facebook page and send a direct message.