What you need to know:
- This critical issue transcends economics and challenges the very essence of gender equality, health and dignity
Dar es Salaam. In Tanzania, a country known for its rich culture and diverse landscapes, a stark reality persists: sanitary pads, a basic necessity for millions of women, are often considered a luxury that remains elusive to many.
This critical issue transcends economics and challenges the very essence of gender equality, health, and dignity.
Menstruation is a natural and essential aspect of a woman’s life. Yet, the inability to access proper menstrual hygiene products has a profound impact on women’s lives. According to the World Bank’s 2023 Tanzania Economic Update released in February, mature female students lose an average of 30 to 40 days of study every year due to menstruation and the unfriendly environment at school.
Whereas, research conducted by the National Institute of Human Diseases Research (NIMR) in collaboration with the President’s Office, Regional Administration, and Local Government of Tanzania (PO-RALG) shows that only 16.8 percent of the 8,012 girls interviewed missed lessons due to various challenges, including fear and shame, as well as a poor understanding of safe menstruation.
The citizen has witnessed such a disheartening reality, particularly in rural areas and underserved communities, struggling to afford sanitary pads on a regular basis.
For a substantial portion of the female population, the recurring cost of sanitary pads is an economic burden that they simply cannot bear.
Many women resort to using makeshift alternatives, including old rags or even leaves, putting their health at risk due to unhygienic practices.
“Growing up, our mother taught us how to use pieces of clothing, where we tie a thread on the waist like a belt, and then we wear a folded piece of cloth. The thread is meant to hold that piece of cloth,” explains Monica Paul (35) a Kitayawa resident in a village in Iringa.
Ms Monica continued that since their school’s toilets were pit-hole latrines, it was easy to dispose of them.
“When my own girls matured, I taught them the same, but with a little improvement. They don’t need to tie a thread anymore, but then it is a challenge to dispose of them since nowadays most schools have modern latrines. So they keep a bag where they put used Visodo in it during school hours,” she added.
It is the same situation for urban girls and women, college students, and Dodoma residents.
“There are three children in my family—two girls and one boy. My mother is a housewife, and my dad doesn’t earn much. I am still in college; affording not less than Sh3,000 each month for sanitary pads has been a huge burden to both me and my family,” shares Maria Nyimbo.
Ms Nyimbo added that, due to her many financial needs, she is sometimes forced to cut a pad in half so that she can use a few pads throughout the cycle.
“When I use half a pad, I normally skip classes and stay in my room. You cannot be confident enough with half a pad; anything can happen, and I cannot afford the shaming that comes with it,” added Ms Maria.
Ms Miza Hamisi, a hotel attendant and Zanzibar resident, shares that she does not recall being given money by her parents for sanitary pads ever since she completed standard seven many years ago.
“Sanitary pads are the last thing my father would give me money for. When I had my first period in standard six, my mother taught me how to use pieces of cloth, and I would not be allowed to go play with others because then what if the cloth falls and other children see it too?” detailed Miza.
Born and grew up in Bububu, Unguja, Miza added: “You lose confidence wearing a piece of cloth; mainlanders call them ‘Visodo’ to even go out to a street vendor. I would worry that it would show, smell, or fall as I walked around.”
A second-year student at the Tanzania Institute of Accounts, Nancy James, shares that whenever she cannot afford sanitary pads, she will go around hostel rooms to ask for one piece of sanitary pad from people.
“Some would ask that I return once I purchase mine; some will give me it for free,” shared Nancy.
In addition to access issues, girls and women must also contend with deeply entrenched cultural beliefs and social taboos.
Menstruation is a taboo subject rarely discussed publicly in many Tanzanian communities because it is perceived as a shameful, private, and dirty event that must be kept secret as a female issue.
Menstrual blood is also associated with beliefs about impurity and contamination.
“They would miss school the first two days of their cycle because Visodo is not too reliable and they mostly feel uncomfortable being around their peers,” detailed Monica
Zion, one of Monica’s daughters, shared that they are taught it is taboo to walk in front of male individuals during menstruation or cross a junction. “It’s bad luck, they said.
Menstruation is still surrounded by stigma and taboos in many rural communities. Girls and women may feel ashamed or embarrassed about their periods, leading to a lack of open discussion about menstrual health.
Walking the streets of Chunyu village, the majority of women and schoolgirls wear pieces of clothing as well.
“Not being able to afford it is one of the reasons, but ignorance is the main reason here in Chunyu,” explained Brac volunteers from Chunyu, Dodoma, and Elizabeth Ismail.
Elizabeth added that by the time The Citizen visited, some NGOs had come to conduct awareness classes on reproductive health, including safe menstruation.
“Because they first came to distribute free pads, but the women refused, they are used to Visodo,” further explained Elizabeth.
This lack of awareness and openness perpetuates misinformation and can harm their physical and emotional well-being.
Salma Hamis (16) refused sanitary pads from Brac; she shared that, “I do not trust them; my mother taught me how to use rags; she is using rags, and so are my sisters.”
Inadequate access to education on menstrual health and hygiene further exacerbates the challenges faced by rural girls and women.
“Without proper knowledge, they may not understand the importance of hygiene during menstruation, leading to health issues. Additionally, the lack of awareness can perpetuate harmful practices and beliefs,” further shared by Ms Elizabeth.
In some cases, girls may miss school during their periods due to a lack of proper menstrual products.
A health and environment teacher at Chunyu Primary School, Ms Joyce Msigwa, explained how a lack of adequate sanitation facilities, including clean and private toilets with running water, also poses a constraint on safe menstruation, especially for school girls.
“This lack of infrastructure makes it difficult for girls and women to manage their menstruation hygienically and with dignity. They use normal toilets, which even younger students use, increasing the risk of infection and embarrassment,” she said.
The public calls for the government, NGOs, and local organisations to work together to provide affordable or subsidised menstrual products. This would ensure that girls and women have access to safe and hygienic options.
“Prices are too high, Sh2000 per pack, and some use more than two per month depending on the cycle; the majority of us cannot afford them,” said Ms Msigwa. Investing in the construction of clean and private toilets with running water in schools was another crucial solution women suggested.
“These facilities should be designed with the specific needs of menstruating individuals in mind. Store extra pads, skirts, and anything else that one would need during menstruation,” suggested Kihesa secondary school teacher, Happy Shirima.
For her part, Elizabeth recommended that the government and other organisations implement comprehensive menstrual hygiene education programmes in rural schools and communities.
“These programmes should address the stigma and taboos surrounding menstruation and promote open dialogue. Engage community leaders and parents,” she said.
For the Isle, Miza suggested that Sh10,000 be provided to women and girls as the government does to the elderly every month.
She said: “For at least Sh1000, a girl would be able to afford not less than four packs of sanitary pads per month. There are not that many NGOs in Zanzibar dealing with girls’ welfare; such subsidies would help alleviate period poverty in Zanzibar.”
Others suggested providing girls and women with the knowledge and resources to make reusable menstrual products, like cloth pads, as this can be a sustainable solution.
It will also empower women and girls to take control of their menstrual hygiene.
Supported by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation