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South Africa has made some strides in its commitments to end period poverty and fully realise menstrual justice, said the Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities Minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, in the Moving the Needle Forward on Menstrual Health and Hygiene in South Africa webinar, hosted by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), in partnership with the South Africa Coalition on Menstrual Health Management ((SACMHM)) and is led by the department on 24 May 2021.


“Sanitary dignity in South Africa means that every girl child and woman in the country can manage their menstruation in a dignified manner. This means that all girls and women, irrespective of socioeconomic status, will have the menstrual information and knowledge; menstrual products; safe, hygiene and private spaces to carry out their menstrual health practices and will be able to walk away from these activities feeling clean and hygienic,” the minister said.

The South African government has made numerous financial commitments towards the sanitary dignity programme, including an investment of more than R210-million to roll out sanitary pads to learners in all nine provinces. During the 2020/21 financial year, about 2.3-million learners in no fee-paying, farm and special schools also received consignments of sanitary pads.


The deliberate and intentional co-ordination of menstrual health management remains paramount in the menstrual health landscape and over the past year, it has been further compounded by the multiple challenges exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Learners bore the brunt of the pandemic when it came to accessing menstrual products as many could not get their regular supply of sanitary pads. This was because some schools were inaccessible as a result of the lockdown restrictions, Nkoana-Mashabane explained.


But, through collaboration with UNFPA and other donor agencies, the department was able to reach communities through innovations implemented during the height of the pandemic, which has also strengthened and expanded these partnerships so that there will be consistent mitigation strategies when such crises recur. The department has also worked closely with education authorities in order to address issues of water supply, sanitation and hygiene, especially in rural schools. 


Together with UNFPA the department is conducting acceptability studies for alternative menstrual products and research is being conducted with regards to the efficacy of reusable and washable sanitary towels to ensure product safety.


“In collaboration with the Department of Basic Education and Water and Sanitation, we are addressing water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) issues in schools, in particular in rural environments, because this has implications for menstrual health and the dignity of the girl,” Nkoana-Mashabane said. “I’m pleased that WaterAid, as a partner in the coalition, is running a project to mitigate Wash issues in Vhembe district schools, in Limpopo Province. They are upgrading toilets and ensuring improved sanitation, safety, privacy and hygiene so that girls do not become vulnerable. Such positive work by our partners deserves to be commended and we are thankful to WaterAid for that effort.” 


Elijah Adera, regional programme manager for sanitation and hygiene at WaterAid, made it clear that menstrual health management cannot be achieved by individuals, but will require collaboration and joint efforts from all stakeholders, including funding from the private sector. “One of the key things that we have to do as partners in this coalition is to engage and unlock private sector financing. If we are able to engage the private sector such as Kimberly-Clark, Procter & Gamble and Unilever, we might be able to not only look at the financial aspect of the resources, but also we could also use their expertise and skills in the production of some of these menstrual health products that support women and girls during their menstrual cycle.”


Beatrice Mutali, UNFPA’s Representative for South Africa and Country Director for Botswana and Eswatini, said significant progress had been made in achieving menstrual health globally, but there are gaps that need to be filled and it is the responsibilities of governments across the globe to come up with commitments for their own countries. In this respect,  the South Africa government has become a key player and is committed to the provision of sanitary towels for girls and women across the board.
“UNFPA has worked with the coalition platform to advocate for safe and quality products by supporting the e-training of 40 women-owned women manufacturing and social enterprises on reusable sanitary towels,” she explained. “We have also engaged in advocacy platforms to develop materials for the poor. Our commitments in moving the needle forward have included  supporting sexual reproductive health training to ensure that there is a module that integrates menstrual health management, such that menstrual health management becomes part of the sexual and reproductive health training.”

UNFPA has also partnered with UNICEF and donated R3-million to support collaboration with the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities. This was done through a joint programme called “Empowering women and girls to realise their sexual and reproductive health rights in South Africa” which was implemented in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. Activities have included procurement of menstrual products, designing of IEC material, disbursements of products and implementation of a monitoring and evaluation framework that will also be critical to the menstrual health management programme. “We're also working on documenting stories and the lessons learned, which will help enhance our programming. As we move forward in terms of increasing access to mental health management products,” said Mutali.


All panellists committed to continually moving menstrual health forward and emphasised how this cannot be done alone but must be done together with civil society, UN agencies as well as the private and public sectors.


Nkoane-Mashabane announced that from the 2019/20 financial year, the government of South Africa has unconditionally committed finances towards menstrual health — and it is one of the only countries that have a specific policy and monetary focus on menstrual health management.


Thobile Mthiyane, Deputy Director at the Department of Water and Sanitation, said that there there is a clear demonstration of how the coalition operates in terms of each individual institution and how they are contributing their time and  personnel resources to ensure that the work that needs to be done fulfills this sanitary dignity framework.

“The coalition also recognises the strategic advantage of this collaborative work. We are trying to break down the silo mentality [because] when we operate in parallel, and are not in competition with one another, this eventually improves the impact on the ground.”