Local companies and non-government organisations interested in producing reusable sanitary pads say that the failure by the Rwanda Standards Board (RSB) to put in place guidelines has halted production forcing some to indefinitely abandon the idea.
In an interview with The New Times, the Executive Director of 'Days for Girls' Enterprise, Olivier Habimana, said that RSB had visited their premises and provided some guidelines which were more on hygiene and security but not on standards.
'Days for Girls' produces menstrual hygiene kits and provides health information to women in need.
Habimana says that after clearing hygiene and security, his enterprise wrote a second letter to RSB in 2019 inviting them to visit and give them a go ahead.
He says that since then, there has been no response. "The biggest challenge to date is not being able to freely sell reusable pads. We only make them for charity purposes but when it comes to commercialising the business, we are stuck because there is no regulation or standards in place."
In the last three years, Days for Girls has distributed 13,000 reusable sanitary pad kits, Habimana disclosed.
However, with guidelines in place, 'Days for Girls' would have the potential to increase the number of staff to produce at least 10,000 reusable pad kits per month.
Their product price range falls between Rwf2,500 and Rwf12,000 and can be used for up to three years.
Without a set of standards or guidelines on the specific boxes a reusable pad must tick before being taken to the market, Habimana and his team of 17 are stuck.
When The New Times visited Tubahumirize Association, one of the pioneer producers of reusable sanitary pads, the idea had been shelved.
The Founder and Program Coordinator of Tubahumurize, Jeanne Mwiliriza, told this publication that the idea to make reusable sanitary pads was among other reasons motivated by a survey conducted by her association in Huye District to assess whether there was a product need.
"We interviewed 100 women and their stories were shocking. Some are using paper bags as pads after childbirth and other things that should not be in contact with private parts. We came back determined to provide them with solutions," she said.
Mwiliriza said that although they were having trouble finding the right raw materials, RBS' delays in providing specific guidelines required for one to start producing the pads made them finally decide to abandon the idea.
"We asked UTEXRWA to make for us the material and they asked for a down payment of Rwf5 million. We could not pay that money to produce a product that is not yet legal," she said.
Today, a machine that she purchased from China to make reusable sanitary pads has been boxed and stored.
Mwiliriza said that in the meantime, women and girls supported by her association in Kigali City and upcountry continue to struggle to access sanitary pads.
"I have met women who work for wages and each has three or five daughters. Such a woman cannot afford to buy single-use sanitary pads for herself or even her girls. There has to be a way RSB can meet us halfway to fix this issue," she said.
The Director-General of RSB, Raymond Murenzi, said that although the discussions have been ongoing, the issue lies with the manufacturers who have failed to provide scientific evidence to guarantee safety and effectiveness.
"We need them to authenticate the materials that they are going to use and to demonstrate and guarantee product safety. They say these products are reusable for years. Can they prove their safety?" he asked.
He said that his office had also requested the product producers to demonstrate how the reusable sanitary pads can be cleaned so that they are not a health hazard to the women and girls who use them.
Murenzi pointed out that tests conducted on some of the sample pads produced by local manufacturers have so far indicated that there are microbes that are sometimes hiding in the materials used.
"The disinfection process must be clear so that while we are seeking a faster and cheaper solution, we don't on other hand end up with more serious health problems," he said.
The New Times sought answers to who between the manufacturer and the standards bureau is responsible for setting standards.
In response, Murenzi said that his office sets standards on some products but on others, it is up to the manufacturer to prove to the standards bureau that their product is safe and effective for consumption.
"If someone wants to bring a product on the market, they must first prove to us that it is going to solve a problem, not cause another. That's how the system works," he said.
He admitted that there was reluctance from the Ministries of education, gender, and health on the safety of reusable pads.
However, he disclosed, a consensus has been reached to push for cheaper access to single use sanitary pads.
Access to menstrual hygiene challenges
Statistics from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) indicate that in Africa an estimated 1 out of 4 girls miss school every month because of menstrual hygiene challenges.
Adolescent schoolgirls and women in Rwanda and across Africa who live in rural areas and low-income urban areas have little access to knowledge about reproductive health, hygiene and little access to affordable hygienic pads.
In Rwanda at least 20 per cent of schoolgirls, particularly in rural areas, miss school, up to 50 days per year, because they cannot afford sanitary pads or due to menstruation related issues, according to World Bank statistics.
In December 2019, the government announced that it had scrapped Value Added Tax (VAT) on single-use sanitary pads.
More than one year later, the price of the pads has not changed.
A pack of single-use sanitary pads costs between Rfw700 (71 US cents) and Rwf1000 ($1), roughly a day's wage for many women, putting it out of reach for many.
To Menstrual Health Management Advocate, Julian Ingabire Kayibanda, there is need for the government to work with reusable sanitary pad manufacturers to find a sustainable solution to menstrual challenges many women and girls still face.
She said that by working with local companies to produce reusable pads, the government would be giving millions of girls and women from poor backgrounds an opportunity to go to school and work without suffering from 'period shame'.
She also called for the government's intervention in looking into the high price of the single-use sanitary pads which has not changed despite the scrapping of VAT.
"While we appreciated the scrapping of VAT on single use sanitary pads, there has been confusion on why the price has not changed. In fact, it has gone higher. The parties involved in making this a reality need to offer an explanation on what is really going on," she said.
In a telephone interview, the Executive Director of Health Development Initiative (HDI); Dr. Aflodis Kagaba said that just like it did for the facemasks, the government should put in place and fast track an enabling environment to encourage local producers to make affordable pads to ease access.
"Access to menstrual hygiene is a human right. Pads that ensure menstrual hygiene must be accessible and the government has a responsibility of putting in place a policy environment and to incentivise local production," he said.
Kagaba said that without these products, many women and girls use materials that can potentially bring them some serious health issues. Encouraging local production, he said, gives them options.
"Considering the fact that that girls and women need these sanitary pads every month to feel secure at school and at work, investing in these incentives is investing in the future of our country," he said.
Although Rwanda is yet to put in place the reusable sanitary pads standards in place, other countries in Africa like Kenya, South Africa, Ethiopia and Uganda have over the last couple of years done so, giving local companies an opportunity to work hand in hand with their governments to push for menstrual hygiene rights.