“Do you think my vagina will be safe in the car?” asked Sue Barnes as we alighted from our rental vehicle. It would have struck me as an unusual sort of question but for the fact that we had been discussing Sue’s vagina and other related topics for the best part of the morning. We were on one of our “menstrual missions”, distributing packs of Sue’s miraculous washable, reusable Subz sanitary pads to 500 impoverished girls from 5 desperately needy community schools.
Before handing out the packs, Subz founder and inventor Sue does a brilliant talk in which she lovingly explains menstruation and the fact that each girl’s body is a precious thing; something to be honoured and respected. This is not as obvious as it might seem to you or I. As I have written before, many of these girls make use of toilet paper, newspaper and even soiled sanitary pads belonging to friends or relatives during their monthly period. The harsh reality is that menstruation will keep over 60% of South African girls away from school for a cumulative total of more than one-and-a-half years of their 5-year high school career. This makes passing matric virtually impossible and their options become limited to menial work or worse still a life at the mercy of a sugar daddy, now disingenuously referred to as a “Blesser”.
For the purposes of illustrating the various parts of a woman’s body, Sue makes use of some highly innovative props; an apron complete with breasts, removable nipples and a vagina and a 3D model of a woman’s pelvis. This is the particular prop that she was referring to when we got out of the car.
Spending time with Sue Barnes on what she refers to as a school activation, is a truly enriching experience. Not only do you get to see the utter joy on girls faces as they receive their free 3-year supply of washable, reusable sanitary pads, but you also get to speak openly about sex, breasts, nipples, penises and vaginas. I find this to be extremely liberating and very necessary in our society.
You see a significant contributing factor to our very high levels of woman abuse, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, abandonments etc. is the gradual erosion of dignity and sanctity that so many girls and women in our country experience. This happens when young women are denied access to proper information presented in a respectful, open fashion and products that dignify them and celebrate their femininity. I also believe that the language (or lack thereof) that we use for sex and related issues is highly problematic and plants early seeds in both boys and girls that sex is dirty and shameful – even violent. This creates fertile soil for later perversion and abuse to flourish.
When Cathy and I became parents we made a decision to refer to our and Lolly’s genitals by their proper names. No peepee and foofoo for this family! We allow her to look, we talk with her about our differences and – in an age appropriate fashion – we answer her questions. It is quite telling that we have copped some serious flak for this approach.
Now please understand, this is all new to us and something that we are really battling with ourselves. In fact, we have to steel ourselves every time we use the words or have the conversation. Neither Cathy nor I come from families in which sex was discussed. In fact, recently, Lolly loudly announced to her Granny that she had an itchy vagina and my poor old Mum nearly lost her lunch. “Don’t say that word!” she said in hushed tones.
Now my Mum’s response would actually be Cathy and my response had we not taken the decision to make a concerted effort to try and normalise these things. This is an attempt to help our child grow up without the sexual hang-ups that we have.
My point is that so many kids grow up with a sense that you can’t even call something its proper name – it’s that bad. The words vagina and penis – even menstruation or intercourse – have almost become swear words to the point where we often use slang words to describe our reproductive life and organs; words we deem to be more appropriate but that I would not necessarily put into print.
So, many children – girls in particular – grow up stripped of their dignity through a combination of shame, a lack of suitable sanitary products and very low levels of real understanding around their menstrual cycle and even how they get pregnant. This leads to a degradation of their and others sexual selves because of a general lack of care and openness around these topics. For this reason, I suggested to Sue Barnes that this Child Protection Month we should launch a “Love Your Penis Love Your Vagina” campaign. Even she said no!
However, you can help. To date Mercury readers have raised a staggering R150k for girls to hear Sue’s life-changing talk and receive a pack of washable, reusable sanitary pads. With your support we have reached over 1000 needy girls in 10 schools. We invite you to join us and sponsor a (nother) 3-year supply of pads and panties for one girl. For just R140 you will change her life forever.
The Peace Agency bank details are as follows:
FNB Durban North
Acc #: 6215 995 8217
Branch code: 22-04-26
Please reference your donation with “Project Dignity”
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.