Recently, the Huffington Post’s Global Motherhood reported on a story first featured by NewsDay, a major news outlet in Zimbabwe. According to these articles, the situation for women in Zimbabwe in terms of access to feminine hygiene products has become dire. For NewsDay, reporter Veneranda Langa explains that, due to the high taxes and tariffs charged by the Zimbabwe government on imported goods like sanitary wear, women and girls must resort to using old strips of clothes, maize stalks, leaves, even cow dung as pads during menstruation. While these improvised substitutes for sanitary pads and tampons are obviously unhealthy and often ineffective, a further lack of steady and safe access to clean water with which to clean the body during menstruation further complicates this issue.
In Zimbabwe, like in many places in the world, menstruation is a taboo subject that is not discussed openly. For many women and girls living in more rural areas, families can barely afford the basic necessities needed for daily life like food, water, and shelter. Most females must make due with improvised sanitary wear, which is often used pieces of clothing, or sometimes wadded up toilet paper. The problem is that for women and girls who are especially active, whether at school or work, they are under constant fear that these improvised sanitary pads will come loose and fall out, which would cause endless embarrassment and shame.
For many girls, a lack of sanitary wear at school is a serious problem. Without access to sanitary wear, girls are missing school for fear of soiling their uniforms and making their period public knowledge. One teacher explained that many of her students who could not afford sanitary wear would use leaves as pads, and some even went as far as to use maize cobs. These desperate girls insert the rough cobs into their vaginas, which act as makeshift tampons. With no way to sterilize the cobs before inserting them, the girls wear them for hours to get through the school day.
When women are forced to use such poor substitutes for sanitary wear, gynecological issues can become quite serious. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) claims that 63% of gynecological diseases are caused by using poor quality sanitary products, as women are vulnerable to infection during this delicate period and weakened immunity can lead to more serious health threats. Women using cheap sanitary products often suffer from chronic yeast infections, irritation, pelvic inflamatory disease (PID), and other gynecological diseases.
In Zimbabwe, the price of proper sanitary wear is the main factor forcing women to use cheap and unsanitary alternatives. For example, in order to import saintary wear into Zimbabwe, a compnay must pay the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority 20% duty and 15% vaule added tax, making the price of the items sold in shops completely unaffordable. Prices range from $0.99-$3.25 for a pack of roughly 8-10 pads. Tampons are much more costly, with the average pack of 10 costing anywhere from $2.00-$4.00. While this does not seem like much, it means that for the average woman who has a period spanning 3-7 days, depending on her flow, she may have to spend and much as $20 a month on sanitary wear. That totals roughly $240 per year. In a country where over 72% of the poluation lives in poverty and the average GDP since 2009 has been roughly $900, you can see how impossible it would be for a woman to dedicate $240/year on sanitary wear.
Until something can be done to lower the high costs of importing these goods into the country, women and girls in Zimbabwe will continue to suffer unduly from this lack of access to a basic human need.