It is Women's Day on Tuesday, March 8. According to UN Women, this year's theme is: "Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality". But, in Tanzania, as it is in most African countries, inaccessibility of sanitary towels - an important product to women and girls is one of the things that widen the gender gap.
On top of the distress of having no sanitary towels, women have to go through the ordeal of the agonising pain that comes with the monthly flow. They say that the pain a woman feels during this time is second to the labour pains. Catherine Matemu, 14, a Form One student at Jangwani Girls Secondary School cannot testify to that since she has never had any children. But what she does know is that nothing takes away her confidence like being in 'that time of the month'. Apart from the week-long cramps, she also experiences the unease and constant worry that she might embarrass herself with stains. Her bright orange skirt as school uniform doesn't do much to help protect her from those accidental dots. And as a border student, what she dreads the most is not having enough money to buy sanitary towels for herself when she needs them; a fact which happens more often than she would like.
However, Catherine doesn't think that her case is as bad as it could get. Although the school is at the heart of Dar es Salaam, one of the developing cities in Tanzania, teachers are concerned about the physical and mental health of the girls at the school. Jangwani's Head Teacher, Geraldine Mwanisenga says that they have recently discovered that some girls were using their socks as their last resort.
"This is what things have come to for boarding students", Mwalimu Mwanisenga says. She shakes her head at the thought of it and explains: "Girls have become desperate. We found out recently that some of our hostellers were using socks during their menstruation period. It is hard to believe that this is happening at the heart of the city, can you imagine what could be the case for students in rural areas?"
A nationwide problem
It is widely known that girls in rural areas are challenged in accessing sanitary pads. But little is said concerning girls in urban areas such as Dar es Salaam, an urban centre in Tanzania. According to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), one in 10 African teenage girls in remote areas miss school during their menstruation cycle and eventually drop out because of menstruation related issues.
Jangwani, which caters for day-students and borders, has 196 hostellers; 80 among them are living with physical disability. Dormitory Prefect Graciana Edward, 17, in Form 4 is from Mbeya. She feels embarrassed when that time of the month arrives. She often has no money. "I usually ask my friends to give me their pads or lend me money; it is so embarrassing," she says. Several other students have testified that they too resolve to asking their colleagues for help. "It is even worse when you don't have money to buy pads while water supply is cut off," says Graciana.
Mwalimu Mwanisenga says that there are parents who think that boarding school is a place of refuge. They bring their children and never return to see how they are doing. This is mostly the case for students who come from upcountry. Faraja Mwaipungu, 18, Form 4, also from Mbeya says parents have a tendency of abandoning them once they are in boarding school. "Your parent might give you TSh5,000 and promise to send you more, but never does so. This is very frustrating," she says. She says that she has used toilet papers several times when she was unable to buy sanitary pads for herself. "I feel bad about it. And I lose my confidence," she speaks.
Faraja is of the view that most girls lack self-awareness education. "Most girls do not understand much about the changes that are happening in their bodies. I think we need more of this," she said. Mwalimu Mwanisenga says this issue affects the girls' self-esteem. Although this is an 'all-girls' school, there are male teachers at the school. The girls care about this.
Gynecological and Psychological Effects
On the other hand, Dr Siriel Massawe, a well-known gynecologist based in Dar said that when a woman is in her periods, she must be hygienic. The sanitary pads that girls use must be clean because it is easy for her to be infected with fungal infections.
"There are many communities that use other alternatives other than a pad. But even if they use a cloth, it has to be handled with a lot of care. Now to hear that there are children using socks, this is terrible. How do socks absorb the fluid? It doesn't have the protection that they need," she said.
Assistant Lecturer at the Institute of Social Work, Evetta Lema says that menstruation itself is associated with shame since it involves sexual and reproductive health education. Many teenagers aren't even talking openly about it with their parents. Some are too shy to even say that they have started experiences the changes of puberty.
Although this might seem like a 'shameful' topic for our culture, the girls agree that it is high time that this was discussed in public and what needs to be done be done. When asked if they would rather use pseudo names "No", they all chorused.
Finding a solution
Rebeca Gyumi of Msichana Initiative, a 'girl-empowering' NGO based in Dar, es Salaam says the government should do something about the situation. Gyumi is of the opinion that that the government rid of taxes off such a commodity. She recently championed a Social Media discussion owith hashtag #PediBilaKodi. "Can you imagine, a girl saying, I think I shouldn't have my periods this month. It is ridiculous. It is not possible. In the same way, it is ridiculous for the government to impose taxes on sanitary towels. They should be affordable so that everyone is able to purchase them," she says.
But the government has already scrapped off VAT on this, says TRA Director of Education and Tax Payer Services, Richard Kayombo. Perhaps what needs to be done is to have special funds allocated for this need in schools. "I think it is high time for the government to allocate special funds for sanitary pads. We do not have this," he says. Mwalimu Mwanisenga says that they have been receiving donations from NGOs. Teachers at the school also have a fund through which we give to those who are in need to help them get their basic needs.
The situation around the world
This is not exclusive to Tanzania. In an interview with YouTube personality Ingrid Nilsen in January, President Obama was surprised that feminine sanitary products such as tampons and pads were treated as luxury goods, having tax imposed on them. According to time.com Pres. Obama said, "I tell you, I have no idea why states would tax these as luxury items. I suspect it's because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed."
According to Marie Claire Magazine, Australia has 10 per cent tampon tax rate; France has 5.5 per cent; Germany has 19 per cent; Italy has 21 per cent while England has 5 percent. Los Angeles Daily News reports that other countries with VAT-free sanitary products include Jamaica, Nicagarua, Nigeria and Lebanon.