#FreeThePeriod Initiative: Championing the fight against period poverty

For many girls, life is put on hold when they get their period. On top of the pain and discomfort, they can’t access period products and in order to deal with the menstrual flow, some use old cloths, toilet paper, newspapers or even tree leaves. They literally use anything that would help them absorb the flow just so they can go on with their lives. 

Isabella Akaliza has had a chance to interact with some girls, especially those in rural areas, about the issue, and they opened up to her with heart-breaking stories.

Many girls cant afford sanitary pads, and this affects their education. Photos by Craish Bahizi.

“There are girls who can only use a pad a day, and so they cannot go to class because of this. It’s easier for them to skip class so that they don’t leak and also because they don’t want to smell for others,” Akaliza says. 

“Because these girls can’t afford pads, they end up using cloths and that’s not sanitary, it can affect their health for they can get infections,” she adds.

Akaliza(L) donated over 700 pads to  Nyamirama Secondary School in Kayonza District on Monday

Through her initiative ‘#FreeThePeriod, Akaliza wants to address these challenges. She wants to ease access of period products for each and every woman, and through advocacy, she is lobbying for tax exemptions, a step that will lower the prices of sanitary pads.

Her initiative also fundraises for funds to buy sanitary pads and then distribute them to schools. 

“In regards to lobbying for tax exemptions we’ve reached out to policymakers to explain what the issue is and why we believe tax exemptions can be one of the solutions. We’ve also engaged the public through social media advocacy as well as, popular debate forums like ‘The Square’ to increase awareness on why tax exemptions could be beneficial in ending period poverty,” Akaliza says.

Akaliza’s dream is to see women and girls have easy access to period products.

The 21-year-old believes that such products shouldn’t be taxed because they are a necessity.

“It’s a human right that every girl and woman should have. Accessing sanitary pads is an issue of health and dignity; it is about comfort such that young girls who are in school don’t get to miss so many days of school. When we are fighting for girls’ rights, we are always talking about education but we also need to fight the barriers that prevent them from going to school and staying in school,” she says.

Akaliza commends what the Government has done in terms of addressing this issue. She applauds the ‘Icyumba cy’umukobwa’ initiative saying that it is really making an impact for girls in school. However, she hopes that more is done.

Breaking the stigma around menstruating

Akaliza says stigma is absolutely a big part of the challenges that come with periods yet it’s rarely discussed.

Some of the products that were distributed.

“In society we were told to keep periods to ourselves and not talk about them. I never thought this was an issue because of the privilege that I had to be able to always have a pad whenever I needed one. There is an element of shame when you can’t afford those products and so many issues that need to be addressed but we first of all need to talk about them,” she says.

Future plans

The initiative hopes to look at women in prison and girls out of school to ensure that they also have period products.

Efforts will also be put in providing sanitary pads and other items for different schools at least per term. “There are girls that can’t even access painkillers and they are in a lot of pain during class they can’t concentrate, so we want to do more,” she says.

The girls speak out

Nadege Binwa Kilosho, a senior five student, says that period poverty is a very big issue that is affecting girls. 

Her initiative raises funds to buy sanitary pads and then distribute them to schools.

She says, most girls face a problem of no funds, and thus resort to other alternative sources like worn-out clothes.

“The problem that we (girls) face during menstrual periods is poverty, and we can’t get access to sanitary pads because we can’t afford them. Using the worn-out clothes is very unhygienic and uncomfortable but by and large we have no alternative source,” she says.

For Ornella Mpawenawe, a high school student as well, the consequences that arise due to the lack of sanitary pads are in most cases terrible for any girl or woman to handle.

“It is very unrealistic to study in an environment where everyone gets to know that it (periods) has affected you. This is why most girls drop out of school, because they can’t keep up with the mockery that comes as a result of getting exposed to the rest of the students,” Mpawenawe says.

“There are different “mockery games” that students come up with, especially in girls’ dormitories when they know one is struggling and can’t afford sanitary pads. But this is not good and it can lead to bad relationships in the school environment,” she says.

The initiative aims at ending period poverty.

Mpawenawe suggests that students from vulnerable homes be helped to get these sanitary products from donors like such initiatives (#FreethePeriod).

Jessica Mukama says it would be like a dream come true for these challenges to come to an end.

“I find it hard to afford a sanitary pad, and so does a big number of other girls, however with such initiatives, this will be overcome. This makes me feel like there are people out there who are willing to extend a helping hand,” she says.

She hopes for more initiatives to come up with such that more is done to address period poverty.

editorial@newtimesrwanda.com

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