THE use of unhygienic material in place of sanitary pads by the girl child has become a worrying factor for health experts as well as concerned organisations and individuals.
Research carried out by some organisations and individuals shows that some girls resort to using unhygienic alternatives such as newspapers, rags, leaves, tissue paper and cow dung, among others because they cannot afford sanitary pads or tampons.
The cheapest pack of sanitary pads costs more than $1 while expensive brands go for up to $10. Those who can afford the luxury of tampons have to fork out $4 for the cheapest.
Some girls are even afraid to ask for money from their parents hence they suffer the pain of womanhood and even miss lessons when on their menstrual periods.
Due to the secrecy surrounding menstruation and the failure by some communities to accept it as a natural biological process, many disadvantaged women and girls end up using unhygienic material which result in vaginal infections like thrush.
Statistics show that 72 percent of rural girls use soft bark tissue during menstruation because they cannot afford appropriate sanitary wear and do not attend school as a result.
A survey done in 2014, according to the Ministry of Women and Youth Affairs, indicates that 20 percent of girls miss school due to period pain while 62 percent miss school due to lack of pads and 26 percent stay home because of heavy flows during menstruation.
Five percent of rural girls cannot afford pads with the disabled and vulnerable the hardest hit.
According to a local company, My Pads, which produces reusable sanitary products, 44 percent of rural shops do not sell any sanitary products.
As such, some girls in these areas do not go to school during their periods, which translates to an average18 percent of her schooling annually and eventually drop out for fear of being the laughing stock both academically and in their health.
More than 62 percent of rural girls in Zimbabwe do not afford sanitary pads and as a result many end up turning to unhygienic alternatives.
According to the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund, one in 10 girls of school-going age in Africa misses school or drops out altogether during their menstrual cycle.
Girl child organisations are concerned that menstruation, a natural biological process, is unfortunately shrouded in secrecy. It is also considered taboo to even mention the words ‘menstruation’, ‘pads’, ‘tampons’ or ‘sanitary towels’ in some communities.
Individuals as well as organisations such as SNV Netherlands Development, Days for Girls Zimbabwe, Integrated Sustainable Livelihoods, Sanitary Pads Movement as well as local initiatives such as Bella Bright and Rose of Charity have showed concern for the impoverished girl child, hence have come up with empowerment strategies.
A teacher Miss Nancy Matowe, who leads a girl child campaign at a Victoria Falls school, narrated how she was touched by the condition of a pupil whose menstrual health was affected after she used tissue paper.
“In our interaction we have come across situations whereby the girl child is forced to resort to unhygienic materials. Many of these girls say they do this because of financial hardships. I remember one girl was using tissue paper in place of pads and as a result of continued use the tissue paper entered her privates.
“No-one noticed until she started experiencing heavy flows accompanied by greenish blood clots. Her situation was almost tragic and you can imagine the danger she would have gotten into if this had not been noticed,” said Miss Matowe.
She said some girls stay with their step-mothers or guardians who take little cognisance of their plight.
Miss Matowe called for intervention of responsible authorities who should ensure that sanitary pads are made available.
“The girl child is vulnerable to diseases due to use of unhygienic materials. These sanitary pads should be accessible to every girl child in schools, church and hospitals the same way birth control pills are to women,” she added.
Miss Matowe called for more educational campaigns to end taboos and myths associated with menstrual periods.
“Heavy flows are associated with being morally loose or a sign that someone would have over indulged in sex,” she said.
“This myth should be changed. Teachers should also be friendly so that girls can easily approach them when they face these situations while at school. This should also be extended to churches.”
Findings by organisations are that 20 percent of primary school girls have no information about menstrual hygiene before they begin their periods while 54 percent are mocked and stigmatised by boys when they stain their uniforms at school.
It is in this vein that schools are encouraged to keep sanitary wear in case girls begin their menstrual cycles while at school.
Some schools have taken the initiative and established social clubs while non-governmental organisations such as SNV Netherlands, have partnered government to cater for orphaned and vulnerable children and empower the girl.
A Victoria Falls-based former model, Ms Michelle Gapara who started a company, Bella Bright last year to motivate and inspire people, called for a paradigm shift with regards to the girl child.
She said she “got scared” when she learnt that girls use cow dung in place of sanitary pads because they cannot afford the correct material.
“I was in a shop looking for gifts for someone when I saw a photo album made of elephant dung. It looked like paper and as I went through it, a shop attendant narrated to me how rural girls use the same material to make sanitary pads because they can’t afford pads. It shocked me to learn that girls get to the extent of making sanitary pads using dung-that’s scary,” she said adding that the practice is common among girls in rural areas and urban poor girls.
She launched a campaign where she visits schools and donates sanitary pads. She appealed to the business community to think twice about the girl child, in light of the dangers associated with using unhygienic material.
“This is very unhygienic. It will be prudent to have containers placed at strategic places within companies or grocery stores where people can drop sanitary pads or monetary donations.
“The corporate world should be involved and this is what we are pushing for as Bella Bright,” added Ms Gapara.
Some girls start having their menstrual period at the age of 10.
A campaign christened Sanitary Pads Movement was organised for free sanitary pads to be placed in toilets like condoms.
As a remedy, Reusable Menstrual Pads (Rumps) are fast becoming popular with impoverished girls.
Rumps are made out of three strips-fleece material, java print and waterproof material and can be washed, dried and reused for three years.
Mrs Simangele Khumalo-Moyo, founder of Rose of Charity, an orphanage in Victoria Falls, has been training orphans housed at the organisation to make Rumps, called ‘Happy Menses’ made of bamboo and fleece fabric which is durable, reusable and washable.
She said they make and donate the pads to disadvantaged girls and only sell to the privileged.
“A snap survey in surrounding rural communities showed that a majority of young girls used hazardous material during their menstrual periods which puts them in danger of contracting cancer. Some end up dropping out of school because of shame after staining themselves in school.
“Happy Menses is comfortable, user friendly and usable on any type of flow like normal pads found in shops,” said Mrs Khumalo-Moyo.
Indications are that in extreme cases, some girls share the same piece of cloth with their mothers due to poverty.
Government should prioritise menstrual health and use Menstrual Hygiene Day, commemorated each year on May 28, to intensify campaigns against use of unhygienic pads.
Matabeleland North provincial medical director, Dr Nyasha Masuka said using anything else besides sanitary pads is a sure health risk.
“Basically the reason why they are called sanitary pads is because they are sanitised and infection-free to make sure they absorb flow and protect users. Using anything that is not sanitised exposes one to infection. There is a danger of tetanus as organisms which live in the soil can easily get up into the uterus and can cause urinary track, urethra and bladder infection,” said Dr Masuka.
“It’s a noble cause for those promoting use of sanitary pads because that will go a long way in preventing infections that will be more expensive to treat. But, they must engage the medical control and take the product for quality checks to make sure they are safe.”