A hush descends over the small prefab classroom as the diminutive dynamo Sue Barnes gets up to address the girls. She begins by asking them what careers they wish to pursue and the enthusiastic answers belie their impoverished circumstances; doctors, pilots, poets and nurses. A master at what she does, Sue quickly latches onto their aspirations explaining that without proper care of their bodies they will be unlikely to achieve their goals.
Towards the end of last year I wrote an article about the fact that over 60% of girls in South Africa miss a collective total of a year-and-a-half of their 5 year high school career due to menstruation. Compelled by poverty to use unreliable substitutes such as toilet paper, newspaper and even used pads, these girls – embarrassed and stripped of their dignity – stay away from school during their periods. Little wonder that only 39% of KZN children who were enrolled in Grade 2 in 2001 matriculated in 2011.
Sue has the girls eating out of her hands. No stranger to the workings of the teenage mind she pulls no punches. Over her head goes a pink apron creatively designed using pieces of coloured fabric which depict the female anatomy. The girls roar with laughter as she uses colloquial terms to describe the different parts. She explains the female body, menstruation and how babies are conceived. The most important aspect of Sue’s talk is that their bodies are precious and should be respected and cared for.
In that article I spoke of a unique solution to the problem of girls missing school due to menstruation; fully washable, reusable sanitary pad-cum-pantie sets designed specifically for less privileged girls called Subz Pads and Panties. A pack containing 2 x 100% cotton panties and 6 ultra-absorbent, multi-layered washable sanitary pads costs just R130 and will last a girl for 3 years!
I appealed to readers to consider sponsoring a R130 pack for one girl. The response was overwhelming. Literally hundreds of people contacted me wishing to get involved. We raised enough to supply packs to over 500 girls in an impoverished Richard’s Bay community.
In that column I wrote these words: “One of my hardest lessons in recent years has been what 19th Century Saint Therese of Lisieux called “The Little Way”. She was a simple Catholic nun who came to a profound understanding of the fact that change – redemption if you like – occurs only as we embrace The Little Way and embark on a life of small, intentional acts of love and compassion and repeat them often.”
Seldom have I experienced this “Little Way” so clearly – so profoundly – as I did on that day in Richards Bay. For what could be more humble – more “little”- than a young girl’s need for a sanitary pad? And yet as we handed out pack after pack – each one containing not just the product but the love and compassion of a nameless, faceless donor – one of you – I understood that the little way is the only way. For it is only as we play our small part that lives are changed, dignity is restored and dreams can be fulfilled. R130 – to keep a girl in school. Who would have imagined that it could be that simple?
As an NGO we want to help as many girls as we possibly can through this project. If you would like to sponsor a (nother) “Project Dignity” girl with a 3 year supply of washable, reusable sanitary pads please contact me on email@example.com and I will send you details. R130 will literally transform a young life.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.