Bulawayo — Whenever Simphiwe Ndlovu checks the days in the calendar and realizes that time of the month is fast approaching, she gets an even sense of tense and stress.
It is like a nightmare will unfold right before her eyes. But no, it is not, Ndlovu is anxious that her monthly menstrual cycle is about to occur.
"Of late my cycle has been strange. I have been experiencing unusual heavy and prolonged flow. Without proper pads I am always afraid of staining my clothes. And that is the most embarrassing thing ever to happen to any woman," said Ndlovu.
She said her cycle has been going beyond normal seven days and with bleeding starting to be severe on the second day, hence requiring her to have strong, but soft and breathable sanitary wear.
Heavy menstrual bleeding is defined as losing about 80 milliliters or more in each period, having periods that lasts longer than 7 days, or both.
Ndlovu said decent sanitary wear is now a luxury and privilege.
In Zimbabwe, sanitary pads are a frill for most women as the majority live way below the poverty datum line. The majority of families' daily expenditures hardly surpass a mere US$1, a clear testimony that they are living in debilitating poverty.
Since the nationwide lock down due to the novel corona virus (COVID-19) pandemic, prices of basic commodities have been skyrocketing as retailers cash in and maximise profits.
With inflation galloping, and prices going beyond the reach of many, women have been hit hard, as they have had to compromise their sexual reproductive health.
Their situation has been worsened by the reintroduction of the multi-currency regime, meaning those who have access to foreign currency can purchase with the same at retail shops.
Ndlovu, a street vendor, is no exception. She is part of the millions on the short end of the stick and this has affected her menstrual health and hygiene management.
"When I cannot afford a loaf of bread and when daily I survive on green vegetables pads are the last thing on my mind," she said.
"I need them but I cannot afford them. Before the lock down, I could scrounge around and look for money to buy, but since lock down started, my situation has been difficult and sad. I just cannot afford them.
"This impact negatively on my confidence and most of the time during my periods I am reluctant to go outside since I have to use alternative sanitary wear such as a piece of cloth. Whenever I go out and see people looking at me I get all worked up and think that I have stained my skirt or I am reeking bad odor", she said.
"I am so embarrassed when I go around selling my vegetables as I have an intuition that people can see through my dress and see that I am using a piece of cloth as a sanitary wear.
Ndlovu is not alone in this predicament.
Sharon Muchema, says she has been struggling to access decent sanitary garbs since neighboring countries shut their respective borders in order to contain the spread of Covid-19 virus.
"My mother used to send me pads when she sent groceries back home. She is a waitress in South Africa and since the lock down things have been difficult for her. She sends money here and there via Mukuru but it is not sufficient enough for our needs," she said.
"At the end of the day I am forced to put on a cloth during my periods. I have heard other women saying makeshift pads can negatively affect you and I am afraid of my health, but I have no choice, added Tafadzwa.
Medical experts say the use of cloth and other makeshift sanitary wears can negatively affect women menstrual health.
"Harmful bacteria may ascend into the bladder and cause urinary tract infections such as cystitis, which is inflammation of the bladder or Pylonenophritis, which is the infection of the kidneys and maybe life threatening," Donovan Tshuma, a medical doctor said.
"There are also other issues such as bad odor and social stigma," he added.
Buhle Mhlanga, a gender activist stated that some women from the countryside use cow dung improvised sanitary napkins during their menstruation period.
"It is destroying our health in the sense that because they cannot afford sanitary pads from the shops they resort to using other forms such as cow dung, leaves and stuff like that which is a hazard to our health," she said.
Mhlanga implored the government to subsidise sanitary wear saying: "I feel like yes it might sound wrong to rely on the systems but they must put measures that will accommodate and promote the woman and girl child when it comes to sexual rights.
"If this is not done as a country we will encounter deaths not caused by anything else but by lack of proper health. So I think it should be flexible for instance condoms are expensive then again they are not expensive condoms because the expensive ones are for those who have the money, but they are some which are relatively cheaper. After all, sex is a choice but not menstruation."
Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, MDC-T proportional representation member of National Assembly has in the past advocated for the removal of duty on sanitary wear.
Last month, Misihairabwi-Mushonga successfully lobbied Parliament to introduce a facility where female MPs will access sanitary pads while in the August House.
A legal practitioner Alpholine Nkomo said despite the legal frameworks and policies put in place through the constitution and statuary instruments, women are still facing the same challenge in accessing sanitary wear.
"The sexual reproductive health rights and the dignity of women continue to be compromised. The cost of sanitary wear is still unreasonable and unaffordable.
"The Government should ensure practical measures are in place for accessibility of sanitary wear by all women. It should put more effort in upholding the constitutional rights in light of the dignity and sexual reproductive health rights of women," she said.
Gibson Mhlanga, acting Permanent Secretary in the ministry of Health and Child Care admitted that retailers were profiteering during the Covid-19 lockdown
He said: "The issue of affordability of sanitary wear is something that as government we are worried about, however, we took note that most businesses took advantage of the lockdown to charge exorbitant prices. Government cannot regulate and put price controls but we use moral persuasion. The ideal situation is that sanitary wear should be free."
Mhlanga further said that government is campaigning for sanitary wear to be given for free.
"We appeal to our business to consider the sanitary wear as a basic need and profiteering with them is wrong. We are lobbying that they be given for free because they are an essential part of life especially to our vulnerable rural women, who were had hit during the lockdown," he said.
However, Denford Mutashu, president of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Retailers (CZR) laid the blame on the failing economy.
"It is our fervent hope that we all stop focusing on a symptom, pricing and begin to address the underlying fundamental issues of production. In your prognosis you may have conveniently forgotten to reroute through cost drivers that keep rising for example fuel, foraging exchange, depreciation of the local currency against the US dollar. It is not business as usual when the cost of sanitary pads escalate beyond the reach of ordinary women, who form the majority" said Mutashu.
Lloyd Mbiba is a journalist from Zimbabwe. This story is part of the GL News Service Gender and COVID-19 series.