Southern Africa: Addressing Period Poverty to Keep Girls in School


Jul 18, 2019

By Tanya Puncuh
Founder, Padding Africa

Millions of schoolgirls around the world are unable to fulfill their dreams and aspirations due to an inability to pay for and access basic sanitary products during their menstrual cycle. Padding Africa aims to give girls and women dignity, pride and empowerment with something as simple as a reusable, ecologically-sustainable sanitary pad.

Growing up in Zimbabwe as a child, I was enthralled by the beauty of the land and the people, and knew that I wanted to do something that would always bring me back to what I consider to be my home.

Fast forward 20 years – while visiting my family with my son in 2017 – I participated in a car rally, touring South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Malawi and taking shoes to school children on route. I spoke to so many young girls who expressed their desires for their future: spanning bookkeepers, nurses, police officers, teachers, anti-poaching workers and more.

In the same year, we worked as volunteers on Imire Rhino & Wildlife Conservancy. While doing community work in rural areas around the conservancy, I was introduced to the Numwa Mothers Sewing Group, a wonderful group of mothers who made sanitary pads for the schoolgirls. This is where I first learned about the problems facing girls during their menstrual cycle. It suddenly hit me that so many of the girls that I’d met during the rally would not be able to fulfill their dreams because of missing so much school during their menstruation.

It was an issue that I had never been aware of. It moved and shocked me.

Moreover, I became aware of all the health risks associated with the current practices of many girls during their menstrual cycles, especially in the rural areas. Often, the girls didn’t even know that sanitary pads exist, resorting to using dry leaves, sand, chicken feathers, dung, banana skins, newspapers and even pieces of mattress foam to meet their needs and be able to attend school during their periods. Some girls would have to dig a hole at home and sit in it for the duration of their menstruation! Worse yet, UNICEF had published a report about how young girls were being forced into “sex for sanitary pads” so that they could attend school.

Menstrual hygiene has emerged as a serious and often emotional subject in Africa, where there is a strong need to provide sanitary pads to schoolgirls who are often at risk of dropping out because of social stigma and embarrassment. During their menstruation, girls may miss multiple days of school or be sent home early, which restricts their ability to study for, take and pass exams. This severely limits their opportunities and productivity for about 20% of the school year.

A large percentage of girls are forced to drop out of school because they fall behind in their studies or experience bullying from peers if their clothes are stained with menstrual blood. For some girls, this leads to being forcibly married and bear children – even when they themselves are just 12 or 13 years old. These young girls experience high maternal mortality and morbidity rates due to the lack of clinics, medicine and medical staff – leaving aside the problems of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.

I felt compelled to do something. The Padding Africa campaign was born in June / July 2017 to enable dedicated and focused work to develop a replicable, sustainable solution to menstrual hygiene management in Southern Africa. Padding Africa raises funds and awareness to support women and girls experiencing period poverty.

We also created sewing groups that serve as micro-businesses for rural women to make reusable sanitary pads and kits. Donations help set up these micro-businesses – composed of a group of five local women –  by purchasing sewing machines, materials and haberdashery for each new group. Each kit that they create includes six reusable fabric pads, three fabric reusable pad holders, one pair of underwear, soap and one towel.

Padding Africa purchases the pad kits and distributes them to schoolgirls, enabling them to continue their education uninterrupted. Since Padding Africa’s launch, we have brought the women from our original sewing group in Numwa, Zimbabwe, to help establish new sewing groups in Mozambique. Upcoming projects will be in launched in Zambia, Botswana and Madagascar.

Despite their simplicity, these sanitary pad kits can change lives. For girls who are able to stay in school, become educated and pursue their dreams – thanks to just a small, well-crafted piece of reusable cotton –  they are truly essential.