Last year - after VAT increased from 14% to 15% - I wrote a blog adding my voice to those of many other activists who have been tirelessly campaigning for sanitary products to be zero rated for VAT. And it seems that our government listened, because in his October Medium Term Budget Policy Statement Tito Mboweni stated that April 2019 would mark a turning point for the millions of menstruating women and girls in South Africa who cannot afford sanitary pads, with the scrapping of VAT on these products.
In addition, Mboweni also announced that the government had earmarked funds for the testing of a rollout plan for free sanitary pads to impoverished learners in three provinces.
“We will ensure that female learners in schools have access to sanitary pads. Several provinces have already taken the lead in rolling out the provision of free sanitary pads in schools. Funds will be added to the provincial equitable share to enable provinces to progressively further this objective,” said Mboweni.
The Department of Women has been working on the development of the Sanitary Dignity Policy Framework since 2016, which seeks to provide minimum norms and standards for the provision of sanitary towels to indigent girls and women. The Framework aims to ensure that no girl misses school due to not having sanitary products to manage a natural biological process.
Do your girls miss school because they don't have or don't know how to use feminine hygiene products? Download these posters and help them understand how to use feminine hygiene products.
In February of this year, Minister Bathabile Dlamini announced that National Treasury had approved a total of R157 million to ensure the rollout of free sanitary pads to learners in all provinces from April 2019 to March 2020. And on the 28th of May, as the world observed Menstrual Hygiene Day, the Department of Women hosted a Sanitary Dignity Indaba to share best practices, lessons learnt, challenges and opportunities experienced during the roll out of the programme in various provinces.
So why are VAT exempt (or better yet, completely free) sanitary pads so important?
Here in South Africa there are approximately 9 million girls between the ages of 13 and 19: the school going age of menstruating girls. UNESCO estimates that one in ten girls in Sub-Saharan Africa misses school during their menstrual cycle because they do not have access to expensive sanitary products. And sanitary products are expensive (even when zero rated) when you add up how many a woman needs over her reproductive life. VAT zero-rating is a start, but in reality they should be free, like condoms. (In fact one could argue that as sex is a choice and menstruation isn’t, free sanitary pads should be prioritised over free condoms.)
But I digress. The UNESCO stats equate to around 900 000 South African schoolgirls missing up to 20% of each school year because they do not have access to sanitary products. And the alternatives are grim; some girls use rags, newspapers and even leaves to manage their menstrual blood, and the use of these alternatives is linked to a 70% higher risk of urinary tract infections, vaginal infections, and skin rashes. Both circumstances - without doubt - cause girls to miss out on economic opportunities in later life.
One of Mr Mandela’s well known quotes is “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” but in order to get an education, girls need to be able to stay in school during their periods. According to Wash United, just one additional year in school can increase a woman’s lifetime earnings by 10 - 20%. When girls complete secondary school, they marry later and have fewer children, and enjoy better maternal health.
The zero rating of sanitary products is just one of many steps needed to ensure better educational outcomes for the millions of school going girls in South Africa. Access to free sanitary products and the promotion of good menstrual hygiene management is critical to keeping girls in school, and thus enabling them to reach their full economic and social potential.
At Initial Hygiene, our colleagues very quickly learn that menstruation - and in particular the management of feminine hygiene waste - is a topic too important to feel any awkwardness in discussing. If you want to be really serious about providing excellent hygiene services, the management of feminine hygiene products is a critical component in the ongoing fight against cross contamination.
Make sure your feminine hygiene units are being used properly and that the women in your office feel comfortable using them by downloading these FHU posters.