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Dignity denied: The lost power of Zimbabwean girls and women

I stood trembling in the queue, my pants at my knees, humiliated. I was eleven years old and the teachers were inspecting our panties to find out the girl who had incorrectly disposed her used sanitary. Today as in those days, It is taboo for a primary school girl to go on her periods, for us it meant something was wrong with her or she had been naughty. I did not want to be associated with menstruation and none of the other girls wanted it either. It was embarrassing and degrading.

This story paints the picture of how many Zimbabwean girls view menstruation - something to be shunned and never be talked about. The early lessons on menstruation taught us silence. It was symbolical that when you enter womanhood everything changed. This was the time realised that womanhood was a burden. From the way the lessons on growing up were delivered both at home and school, it showed that we had lost our dignity. From this period onwards you did not determine how you lived as “a girl does not sit like that, a girl does not complain, a girl does not do that, a girl does not speak…” the rules were endless. A girl could do nothing. All the positive life giving lessons where a girl could do anything and become anything were forgotten by our teachers and parents. Disillusioned and disempowered, I could have withered had it not been for my stubborn spirit. I became convinced to live my life like a man. That meant that I no longer conformed to the girls don’t rhetoric. I became even more alienated as I was considered a rebel. Boys do not experience the growing up shock as hard as girls do, and many girls live like former shadows of themselves, abused but holding on to the silence. It seems that is all they are left with. Silence and fear. Embarrassment and low self-esteem. Menstruation is a subject which has led many girls and women to be disempowered.

Lacks of absorbents lead many girls to drop out of school and get into early marriages. When Paida started menstruating her world shattered. Her teacher had taught them about menstruation but she viewed it as punishment. Paida felt responsible; she must have done something to hurt herself. in denial; the young girl could not talk to her father about menstruation because of the culture of silence surrounding the issue. One day as she sat in class her classmate discovered her tearing pages out of her exercise books and sitting directly on it to absorb the blood. All the pupils circled her and, like hungry vultures waiting to pounce on a dying victim, gaped at her. They were all curious to see the blood and even more where it was coming from. But they were also scared. What if they caught it too? One boy whispered loudly “whore.” The teacher was no better as she immediately pounced upon her. Why she was embarrassing women like this and why she did not have sanitary pads. The teacher then gave her a piece of cotton and told her to tell her father to buy her more.

Thirty years later she still remembers this day freshly, the teacher had made her feel guilty for menstruating, feeling that if she told her father, he would punish her too. Now she is a girl’s rights activist focusing on empowering girls about their bodies and building their self-esteem and sense of self-worth. It took her fifteen years to appreciate that she was also a person who deserved respect. The decision to educate herself was one out of desperation. Her husband would refuse to buy her sanitary pads as punishment. She could not leave the house and became a prisoner in her marriage. “I felt worthless but economic empowerment and education are the keys to build a girls’ sense of worth. I can now buy my own pads,” she says beaming with pride.

Religion perpetuates discrimination of women based on sex, violating their human rights. Some churches do not allow women to lead men because they are considered unclean.

Dishearteningly, even professional, educated women are entangled in this mind frame. There are still many professions that women do not follow because they are women. women sometimes lose a day or two of work due to menstrual discomfort. This has led to unfair dismissals and stigmatization. Work places are sex insensitive and the ablution facilities are not comfortable and equipped to deal with women’s menstrual issues. Disabled women are worse off and miss empowering opportunities whilst their sense of self-worth decreases.

Menstruation is a subject which should be taught with pride and should leave girls empowered and proud of their bodies. The adult world dawning upon me was a mystery. I had been told about menstruation as a secret. 90% of the girls interviewed do not know their bodies. Girls are shy to touch or look at themselves and when changes take place, they do not know what is happening and are left in a web of fear and helplessness. Starting menstruation at an early age leads to many hardships and confusion, disempowering women and robbing them of their health and life.
Reproductive health is a right. Makarati in her research on women prisoners states that menstruation for women is a direct consequence of their biological make-up and is thus a sex function. Unlike gender-related functions which are interchangeable, sex functions are not avoidable. A woman cannot opt out of menstrual periods. ‘Women in Africa still continue to be victims of discrimination and harmful practices despite the existence of so many human rights instruments.’

In 2011 women set up a petition and marched to parliament calling upon leaders to hear their appeal for dignity. They wanted the 2012 National Budget to make provision for pads and tampons to be made available for free in schools and communities. To date nothing has surfaced. There have been numerous parliamentary debates but the issue is not treated with the urgency it duly deserves. If taken seriously, it creates an opportunity for the adoption of a national policy on the management of menstruation.

Sanitary wear is a basic necessity for girls and women but it is taxed unlike other basic commodities in Zimbabwe. There is need for interventions and distribution of free sanitary pads in the same way that condoms are freely distributed. Toilets in public areas have condoms but no sanitary pads. When a girl starts menstruation at school they wait until they get home to access sanitary wear, if it is there. But if an adult working man wants to have casual sex they just walk to the nearest toilet to get condoms. According to the Zimbabwe National Family Planning Council (ZNFPC), 57 million condoms were distributed across the country in 2011 because of the high HIV and AIDS infection rates. ZNFPC reportedly spent about US$500 000 to purchase male and female condoms but no commitment has been shown towards menstrual health yet its killing the souls of women, making girls leave school and endangering their lives.

The government has ignored the plight of women and girls and, as the socio-economic situation in Zimbabwe
deteriorates, women suffer more. Following sanitary wear shortages in 2008 discussions as to whether or not it should be classified as a basic commodity have been on-going albeit with little political will from the government. in a country where over 90% of people are unemployed and 80% of the population live below the poverty line, girls use unsanitary absorbents such as cow dung, leaves and newspapers to the detriment of their health. If priority was put on menstrual health then millions of dollars that are being used to fight cervical cancer can be saved and channelled towards girls’ education.

Statistics show that of the 5.631.274 children in Zimbabwe 1.3 million are orphans. UNICEF states that there are 50 000 child headed families in Zimbabwe and 100 000 other children living without parental supervision. How then do girl children heading families prepare themselves into adulthood? Sarah is mother at ten-to her siblings and is now the head of the family. Something has happened to her but she does not how to cope or who to talk to. Sarah uses a cob to absorb the blood. It is painful but has no choice. A mere child, she has been forced to grow and mature early. The family does not have soap and water is scarce. She sleeps directly on the floor to avoid staining the blanket and having to wash it. About 300 people share a single borehole and the villagers have no access to ablution facilities which makes her ordeal even more delicate and unbearable. To add to her problems and hope for empowerment she fails to attend school during this time. Research has shown that 11% more girls attend school when sanitation is available (UK DFID). Households in rural Africa spend an average of 26% of their time fetching water, and it is generally women who are burdened with the task disempowering them by making them suffer from time poverty and girls missing school. (UK DFID)

Linda played truancy from school, hiding in the bush because she had nothing to use. After staining her pants and clothes she would sit there until dark and then go home. She says, ‘I felt like a cornered animal in the bush. I was scared and confused.” The government has ignored the plight of women and girls as the socio-economic situation in Zimbabwe deteriorates. Discussions as to whether or not sanitary wear should be classified as a basic commodity continue.

Culture and religion are preventing one third of Zimbabwean girls from attending primary school and 67% from attending secondary school. 60% of the girls have a child by the time they are 19. Menstruating girls are prohibited from making public appearances or going to school in some religions because they are dirty. Many end up dropping out of school completely. About 70% of girls fail to attend school a few days every month because they do not have access to proper sanitary ware. “School attendance registers show that many girls are absent at least for four days every month,” according to Integrated Sustainable Livelihoods, a local NGO. Disposal facilities are insufficient or absent and the essential underwear is absent or limited and girls opt to abscond.

The government claims education is the right of every child, yet SAYWHAT, a reproductive health organisation; shows girls miss 13 days in every school term because of menstruation. The effect is girls performance is poor and many fail to proceed beyond secondary school leaving them economically and socially vulnerable and powerless.

HIV/AIDS has not spared young people. Lack of safe sanitary wear triples the risk of HIV infection among girls. Using stones and cobs means that they are left bruised. Many girls lack sex education but are sexually active. The proposed introduction of sex education in schools has led to serious debate with many against the idea. Taboo has killed many girls and women and the silence should be broken. Girls indulge in prostitution to get money to buy pads. For them the bigger problem is lack of pads not the risk of contracting STI’s and HIV.

The world needs to adopt a multi sectorial and holistic approach to solve the issue. Whilst at face value this issue looks like one of reproductive health it goes beyond. It is about addressing poverty, redressing social inequalities, respecting women and empowering girls especially through education. No girl should miss school because of menstruation. Sex education should be discussed in schools and girls should not just be taught about menstruation but taught to speak out and love themselves. To be confident with themselves and to have a safe environment and facilities to live as dignified human beings.

Zimbabwe has committed to attaining the Millennium Development goals and seeks to eradicate poverty as well as promote gender equality and empower women but as long as menstrual health is not prioritised women’s empowerment will remain but a dream.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

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