Hope for Menstruating Girls – part 2

Many of you will know that I am passionate about a number of topics not least of all sanitary pads. You will know this because for the past year I have been appealing to readers of this column to join me in providing packs of washable, reusable sanitary pads to impoverished girls in rural schools. This innovative and uniquely South African product – beautifully designed packs called Subz Pads and Panties – costs just R140 and will last a girl 3 years. For literally millions of girls across our country, such a product is nothing short of a miracle; it will prevent the indignity of using toilet paper, newspaper and in many cases used pads passed on by friends and sisters; it will prevent the spread of diseases; it will prevent girls from missing more than one-and-a-half years of school during their high school career because of their monthly period – a major determining factor in terms of girls matriculating. Readers of this column have contributed a fantastic R100 000 to this life-changing initiative known to us as Project Dignity. I want to take this opportunity to thank you all for your incredible generosity. With these funds we have helped nearly 800 girls in a number of different rural schools. It was on a recent activation at a school in one of the poorer communities we have visited that we all became aware of a very unusual reaction from the girls to the product. The girls usually whoop and high five one another when Sue Barnes of Subzs shows them the pads themselves. But in this community the greatest joy was reserved for when she pulled out the two pairs of panties that come in each girl’s pack. We couldn’t understand this reaction until after the activation when we were talking to one of the teachers at the school. She explained to us that not only do the girls have limited access to sanitary pads – they have no panties either. The result of this lack is extremely damaging to the young female psyche; a stripping of self-worth and dignity; lowered levels of self-esteem; even self-loathing; a giving over of her body – an object of embarrassment, ridicule and disgust – to very youthful sexual relations, unprotected sex, sex for money and other forms of abuse. The knock-on consequences of all this? Apart from the detrimental effect on the girls themselves, Marie Stopes International tells us that there are approximately 260 000 abortions in South Africa per annum of which between 52-58% are illegal. 3500 babies are abandoned each year. The 2011 census revealed that there are 7 million girls between the age of 10 and 19 in the lower Living Standards Measurement (LSM) brackets. We can safely say that a significant percentage of these girls will have limited access to both sanitary products and panties. Now we can campaign, protest and generally jump up-and-down during these 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children – and we should. But how can we have meaningful impact on our extraordinarily high levels of abuse if we allow the perpetration of such indignity and degradation on our girls on a daily basis? Abuse of girls and women must include not providing adequately for their monthly periods. Empowering women has to begin at the most fundamental level; honouring their femaleness – not as something base and dirty and embarrassing – but as something God-given and miraculous. Girls and women must be enabled to embody their femaleness with absolute pride and dignity. This is the most powerful anti-abuse message we can send. I am acutely aware that many of us feel overwhelmed and helpless during the 16 Days of Activism. What can we do to help? Well, working together we have empowered 800 young girls this year alone. We did this ourselves; this generous community of readers. 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.

Too poor to afford a sanitary pad….

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 justin@peaceagency.org.za 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.