Uwizeye (not real name), a 28-year old resident of Gisagara District, has not been able to use sanitary pads since 2010.
When she lost her job as a waitress in a restaurant in Kigali nearly 10 years ago, it did not occur to her that among the most pressing problems she would have to grapple with would be sanitary pads.
“Without a job, I was forced to leave town and go back to the village in Gisagara to stay with my grandmother; I live off odd jobs like working on people’s farms. My grandmother is also poor so I had to give up on the pads,” she says.
She added that the Rwf800 that a pack of pads costs is a lot of money especially when you don’t have a job.
“Even for the little I get from my odd jobs, you find there are a lot of other needs that need to be catered for so I had to give up on using the pads,” she said.
As a result, Uwizeye has resorted to using worn-out pieces of cloth, which she said is a common practice among women who cannot afford the pads on a monthly basis.
“Normally, menstrual periods take for 4-6 days, implying that on average three packs of sanitary pads are needed per month, yet the wooly cloth I use, regardless the discomfort, may last half a year before changing them,” she narrates,
Needless to say, health activists have discouraged them using any other tissues except sanitary pads, says Uwizeye.
Uwimana, a former student at Groupe Scolaire Kimisagara, in Nyarugenge remembers with a lot of pain her menstrual periods during her days in school.
“I remember back in school, where I would skip classes because I was greatly burdened by the fact that I could not afford sanitary pads, and nothing my parents could do because it was a cost they could not afford,” she said.
However, she emphasizes that this becomes even harder for women who normally undergo longer menstrual periods.
“I believe that it’s not a challenge for only women who reside in rural areas but women in the whole country, especially those who have no jobs; it is a huge cost that has to be met on a monthly basis.”
Experts have linked the use of the towels and other materials that are not sanitary parts to diseases like causing cervical cancer and other health sicknesses.
It does not help things when such materials are used multiple times.
In August 2013, the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) passed a resolution urging all partner states to waive taxes on sanitary pads so as to increase their availability and affordability for young girls, but this remains unachieved.
UN estimates one in 10 girls from Sub-Saharan Africa miss school during their menstrual cycle, with some missing out on 20 per cent of their education period.
Despite the impactful girl’s rooms (Icyumba cy’umukobwa) which have been established at different schools in the country, beneficiaries say that sanitary pads remain expensive and much is needed to ensure universal access.
This topic comes following a similar path elsewhere in East Africa, where several countries have removed VAT, Tanzania, and Kenya.
Kenya, a global pioneer on the issue, removed the tax in 2004, and allocates about $3 million annually for the distribution of free sanitary pads to girls in low-income communities.
This, therefore, ensures good health, education and well-being to less privileged females.
Julian Ingabire Kayibanda a known advocate for menstrual health management says that lack of information and knowledge for the usage of sanitary products, not just sanitary pads, that ensure menstrual health, is the main stumbling block that hinders universal access.
“Once women and young girls continue to lack information on how to use sanitary products, and also their necessities this will still spur period poverty,” she said.
Besides, Rwanda as a third world country, women live in less-resource settings, where by women lack facilities that come along with the sanitary pads such as water, changing rooms for young girls who are still in school, soap among others.
However, she adds, taxation on the sanitary products that later make them expensive for many also hinders the aspect of universal access.
What should be done to end period poverty?
According to Ingabire, there is need of more efforts to support initiatives in Rwanda, where local materials are used to produce the pads, re-usable sanitary pads, and also give them for free for those that cannot afford them.
Because, she explains, even those initiatives available mostly rely on external funding, and there is going to be a big gap to bridge once the funding stops.
Conversely, as other measures are being devised to subsidize sanitary pads and making them available to many, efforts must be put in promoting their usage, by training women on the importance of using sanitary pads, and educating them on the dangers of not using sanitary products.
Speaking to The New Times, MP Beline Uwineza, the chairperson of women parliamentary forum, said that sensitisation should take lead, given that women and young girls need to know how to use sanitary pads.
“I believe that awareness should be the biggest concern as we advocate for free sanitary pads, because we (women parliamentary forum), in studies carried out we have come to realize that even if you avail them, many may not use them because they do not know how to use them.
They also do not know their advantage over the other materials they use.
Secondly, Uwineza adds, before tax is waived people should learn to make use of the raw materials here in Rwanda.
“Rwandans have been working tirelessly to come up with Made in Rwanda sanitary pads, though they are still blighted by lack of quality, since they are at the beginning,” said the legislator.
Verene Kagoyire, head teacher at Groupe Scolaire Murehe says that there should be consistent advocacy on top of local efforts that have been put in place to ensure all women can access sanitary pads.
“This is a genuine concern especially for children from less privileged families; a lasting solution should be to subsdise them to ensure accessibility for all.”
Studies, also show that inaccessibility of appropriate sanitary materials to absorb menstrual flow does not only affect female’s reproductive health but their acquisition of education since girls often choose to stay at home when they have their periods.
Speaking to The New Times, in a phone call interview, Emma-Marie Bugingo, the Executive Director of Pro-Femmes/Twese Hamwe, said that this should be a concern that different stakeholders including the private sector should work on together.
“It is a genuine concern and nobody can deny that, however it must not be centered at any particular sector, it should be a social amenity that different authorities sit and discuss the way forward,” she said.
Besides, more support should be given to local companies who are trying to come up with alternatives and promoting made in Rwanda products, she recommends.