Quest for cheaper sanitary pads in EAC continues

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A woman buys pads in a supermarket. Although EALA passed a law waiving taxes on pads, most girls, especially in rural areas, can't afford them. (Doreen.Umutesi)

In August 2013, the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) passed a resolution urging partner states to waive taxes on sanitary pads so as to increase their availability and affordability for young girls but this remains unaccomplished.

Two years later, underprivileged girls especially those in rural areas – including those in countries like Tanzania and Kenya which were previously applauded for abolishing taxes on pads – carry on appealing for cheaper sanitary towels.

“My appeal to government is that it increases prices on alcohol or cigarettes but cuts on sanitary pads so that every poor girl can afford pads,” Helen Wamiti, 22, a senior four graduate waiter at Hyatt Regency hotel, in Dar es Salaam, told Sunday Times during a media summit last month.

Wamiti, who hails from rural Arusha in northern Tanzania says the cheapest pads costs Tshs1, 500 (about $0.669) but poor girls opt for “pieces of the Kanga and any other available cloths.” The prices are increasing, as she recalls, that about three years ago, it cost Tshs1,000 to Tshs1,200.

Wamiti said using pieces of cloths “wouldn’t have been a problem but sometimes, cloths don’t prevent one from getting dirty and it is so embarrassing when it happens to you at school.”

“Not all girls can afford them. One is supposed to use the Kangas. A girl can be in class but not actually concentrating because she is thinking, ‘oh! I am going to get dirty!’ Many choose to skip class. It affects grades.”

UNESCO says one in 10 African teenage girls in remote areas miss school during their menstruation cycle and eventually drop out because of menstruation related issues.

In 2013, Parliamentarian Dr. Odette Nyiramilimo (Rwanda), the architect of the resolution, was supported by the entire House when she underscored that sanitary towels and special facilities for girls will reduce absenteeism and also reduce poor performance by girls.

Pads, EALA agreed, would not only keep girls in school but also ensure their well-being, enhanced dignity and respect of rights. Poor girls often have no access to pads and this leads to social trauma and distress especially when occasioned by wearing poor protective clothing during menses.

But what happened to Nyiramilimo’s proposal?

When Sunday Times caught up with Nyiramilimo recently, she admitted not having conducted thorough research on progress about what partner states implemented but she insisted that the present situation isn’t any better.

What also irks her is that most schools she visited, in her home area, had no idea of the motion she moved in parliament. “Most don’t even know the EAC.”

Nyiramilimo added: “In countries like Rwanda, they put some sanitary pads in schools. I say some because you won’t find sanitary pads in all primary schools. I went to some schools in Rutsiro district in Western Province, and realized that in those rural areas in some cases they don’t even know what a sanitary pad is.”

Her motion “is still valid,” she stressed, “and we want to make sure that all five east African countries implement the recommendations.”

When EALA holds its next plenary session in August, she will ask the Council of Ministers, the organ that makes policy decisions for efficient functioning and development of the Community, “to tell us where they are because they have means to do the thorough research and know what is going on.”

“We make laws. We make recommendations. And they implement. We put them to task. We’ve already asked that question and they said they want to report to us but they have not done so,” Nyiramilimo said.

Rwanda’s Education Sector Strategic Plan (2010-2015) indicates that support will be given to girls in obtaining sanitary towels and special facilities for girls will be established to reduce absenteeism and poor performance.

However, previous World Bank statistics indicated that at least 20 per cent of schoolgirls in the country, particularly in rural areas, miss school, up to 50 days per year, because pads are expensive.

Despite government emphasis on reproductive health, distribution of sanitary pads to girls in school and construction of girls’ only private latrines, as part of efforts to cut the dropout rate, some schools had to be self-reliant.

A year ago, girls in Nyarubuye secondary school, a mixed boarding school in Kirehe District, formed a committee and mobilised cash contributions to buy pads for poor students.  

Cossy Bizimana, a teacher at the school told Sunday Times that the idea was born out of realization that “poor girls suffered a lot.” Girls in menses would miss classes.

Bizimana said: “A girl would put on a pad but doesn’t change it in the evening, since she can’t afford another. If you asked her, she would say ‘even this one was given to me by a friend.’ We decided it was necessary to organise something.”

The cheapest pack of 10 pads in Kirehe costs Rwf600 (about $0.85), students said, appealing that government should help in having that price reduced.

A senior five student Denise Kigeli, 17, said: “Pads help because we go to class with boys. But even if we were not with boys, they are important for hygiene. Pads protect us from humiliation. Each time a girl is menstruating and has no pads, she avoids class in fear of being humiliated. Even if she stayed home, without pads she will be uncomfortable.”

Concurring with her student, Bizimana added: “I wish they (government) would at least reduce the price to Rwf300 ($0.42).”

Despite government not imposing any import duty on sanitary pads, Sunday Times checked with several supermarkets in Kigali, and found that prices in Rwanda are affected by an 18 per cent value added tax.

Like EALA, Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), a local NGO making cheap pads from banana fiber, continues to urge the government to lift the tax. The NGO says 18 per cent of girls and women in Rwanda missed out on school and work last year because they could not afford to buy pads.

Apart from the personal injustice, and the larger issues of health and dignity, SHE also points to a “potential GDP loss” of $215 per person (Rwf147, 000) every year.

Reports from Kenya indicate that despite campaigns to reach poor women, and the government’s zero-rating of import duty on pads, many women use cheaper options such as tissue paper and clothing which expose them to infections.

But all hope is not lost as in Kenya too, entrepreneur Barclay Paul Okari, 23, is producing inexpensive, washable and reusable sanitary towels for the regional market.

A government program initiated there in 2010 to keep girls in school and increase their performance in education had benefited 678,700 disadvantaged girls as of 2013.

Girls in rural Uganda also miss up to eight days of classes each school term because they are in their monthly periods, a 2013 study of menstrual management in Uganda, says.

The study recommended that, among others, primary schools should ensure the availability of water, soap, a basin, emergency material (menstrual pads), facilities for disposal of used pads and medication.