Sanitary Dignity Conundrum

Chani Macauley, Earl Abrahams, Nyameka Booi and Cecile-Ann Pearce

Cape Town

Chani, Earl, Nyameka and Cecile-Ann plan to create awareness and deepen community-wide understand of the provision of sanitary care, among adolescent girls and women who are not able to afford sanitary towels.

An undelivered promise for menstruation dignity made President Jacob Zuma in 2011 has left the indigent to rely on community leaders and NGOs who are driving short-term solutions to preserve menstruation dignity. Collecting menstruation products for those in need have been anything from hosting a “party with a purpose” to knocking on corporate doors that often leads to once-off collection campaigns to fundraising events that can cost up to R1,450.00 per ticket. All these efforts create short-term impact - it is not sustainable.

The Sanitary Dignity Conundrum story explores, through Femme Friends, the issues and challenges that are faced by those in need, those who have taken action to preserve dignity and those who are speaking up for the cause.

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Driving into Mountview High, a secondary school in Hanover Park, one is greeted by unsettled dust, unkept, abandoned fields and blocks of flats erected during apartheid - a reminder of Cape Town’s inequity and racial divide.

On entering the school, we are greeted by friendly, eager learners.

An unexpectedly warm welcome in an area where the average annual income is R29,400 and the average monthly income is R2,400 per household. Where less than 20% of the population of 34,625 (according to the 2011 Census results) completed matric. It is an area where gangsterism and drugs are rife and hope for many is nowhere in sight. Reciprocating the warmth with a dry and nervous smile, one is hit with a pith in the stomach, heart palpitations, sweaty hands and a sense of helplessness. But we quickly remember why we are there: to hear the learners’ perspectives and proposed solutions for menstruation dignity.

We are welcomed into the school’s library where we set up and prepare for our interviews with learners. A group of boys walk in, they are eager and willing to talk, to help identify issues and challenges and to offer solutions as we peel away the layers of the menstruation dignity conundrum.

I ask if they understand what menstruation is. “Yes, it is when a girl stop getting her periods then you know she is pregnant,” responds Clive Moriarty, a grade 11 learner. Almost correct but not quite. Perhaps it is poor articulation, nerves or quite possibly a lack of health education. The interview takes just over five minutes and our next group walks in. This time, it is six bubbly, girls; grades 10, 11 and 12. One of the questions leads to one of the girls asking: “Kry die boys nie period nie?” (Don’t the boys get their period?). The beaming smiles and innocent giggles mask their hunger for solutions, for answers.

It is a question that can easily be ascribed to ignorance by the privileged, but in applying critical thinking can be written to the lack of integrated menstruation education in schools across South Africa.

At a national level, the Department of Women is working on solutions to integrate menstruation education as part of the broader drive to ensure menstruation dignity for the poor, according to the Western Cape Government’s Department of Social Development (DSD).

“At a local government level, we are looking into the menstrual hygiene management issue in a holistic way,” says Kim Smith, Special Project Manager at DSD. “This is an issue that requires an inter-sectional transversive project. We are looking at how to better manage the sector’s approach to the issue.”

There seems to be some activity at government level, a small promise for a solution that can bring change and relief. Some hope for the many poor schoolgirls and homeless women in SA.

Christal Za & Earl Abrahams

The conversational videos with the boys and girls will form part of the final piece of the #CBStorytellingChallenge. Thank you to the staff at Mountview High.

Photography and videography by Earl Abrahams, writing by Chani Macauley

Two-wheeled motor vehicles lined up at 8am on a Sunday morning as bikers meet to start their breakfast runs from the Engen - False Bay 1 Stop on the N2 highway is not rare. But this morning was different as over 90 motorcycle riders; club representatives and independent riders revved their engines to do South Africa’s first ever breakfast run for sanitary towels.

Called the “Pad Run”, riders put wheels to tar at 8.30am for breakfast at Helderstroom Prison in Caledon and ended the ride at Stikland Driving Range, completing an estimated 184 kilometer ride. With this initiative, a partnership between Ikhozi Llendlela MCC and the Period Project SA (PPSA), the biker community in Cape Town kickstarted their menstrual activism to bring about social change for schoolgirls in disadvantaged communities.

Who are some of the activists who leaned in to break down the menstrual taboos to preserve sanitary dignity for school girls?

These photographs document the faces of activists in the biker community who are breaking down the taboos that about menstruation.

Eldrid Petersen, Treasurer and co-organiser of the “Pad Run”, club Ikhozi Llendela believes government should give sanitary towels to girls for free and remove tax from sanitary towels.

Brandon Dreyer representing the club Relentsless MCC - father of two daughters, activist for free sanitary towels believes that potential of girls must be unlocked.

Paul Jacobs, President and co-organiser of the “Pad Run”, club Ikhozi Llendela - lobbying for the distribution of free sanitary towels by government. He believes that if government can give free condoms, then girls can receive free sanitary towels.

Cecile-Ann Pearce, founder of The Period Project SA - activist for the removal of tax on sanitary towels, to keep girls in school and to ensure sanitary dignity for all women in SA.

Tracy Van Turha works for the Department of Education and has experienced first hand the humiliation learners experience when they have to ask school administrators for sanitary towels.

Cape Town, South AfricaLack of SA Government’s prioritisation to provide free sanitary towels to schoolgirls in poor communities has left tackling the issue to social organisations and NGO’s. The Period Project South Africa (PPSA), a registered non-profit corporation, is one step closer to providing free sanitary towels to schoolgirls from poor communities. The PPSA recently partnered with local biker club, Ikhozi Lendlela MCC, in an effort to source sanitary towels for schoolgirls in need while raising awareness around the negative impacts many girls face when not having access to the necessary products during their menstrual cycles.

Government’s efforts to ensure the menstruation dignity for the poor has been dismal, misaligned and unsustainable. For girls in low-resource areas, not having access to sanitary towels can not only negatively impact their education, but also their psychological and physical health. School girls who cannot afford sanitary towels often resort to using alternative products during menstruation. This, in turn, can harm their dignity due to discomfort and fears of embarrassment and girls can end up missing out on school for up to five days a month.

According to the City of Cape Town’s census statistics of 2011, 35.7% of 1 068 572 households within the Western Cape live below the poverty line. For these families, sanitary towels are too often items of luxury and menstruation care can cost up to R40 per cycle.

Government’s lack of attention and budget prioritisation to provide free sanitary towels to the poor have led to various initiatives and non-profit organisations tackling the issue by providing free sanitary towels to under-resourced schools in township and urban communities. One such initiative is called The Period Project South Africa, a registered non-profit corporation established by Cecilé-Ann Pearce earlier this year.

“I started my activism for free sanitary towels in 2013 and formally registered the project earlier this year. I want to give our female youth an opportunity to experience menstruation with dignity, especially those in matric who cannot afford to be absent from school,” says Cecilé.

PPSA has recently partnered with local biker club Ikhozi Lendlela MCC on an inaugural biker ride called a “Pad Run”. All bikers and associated clubs are invited to join the ride free of charge which will include a complimentary lunch for participants. The only requirement is for riders to contribute a pack or more of sanitary towels of any brand to the cause.

The first ride will take place on 6 November 2016. Riders will meet 8:00 am at the N2 Engen 1 Stop to depart at 8.30 am where they will make their way to the Helderstroom Prison in Caledon for breakfast. Thereafter riders will continue through to the Stikland Driving Range for the official handover of the sanitary towels over a free lunch and social.

“For a cause mainly supported by women it is encouraging to see men get involved and break down the squeamishness around the issues associated with sanitary pads,” adds Cecilé.

For PPSA, this partnership is just the beginning of men and women uniting in order to nurture confident girls, who will grow into confident women. Dignity is everyone’s business. No girl should suffer shame or guilt. Nothing is more natural to the female anatomy than her monthly menstrual cycle,” Cecilé closes.

For more information on how you can support the “Pad Run 2016” contact Cecile-Ann Pearce (PPSA) on mobile - 082 330 6987 or e-mail [email protected]. Biker clubs are invited to contact Eldrid Petersen (of Ikhozi Lendlela MCC) on 082 603 8269 for any questions regarding the ride.


The Period Project South Africa (PPSA), is a registered non-profit corporation that executes sanitary towel collection drives in the Western Cape and South Africa for school girls in under resourced areas since 2013. The corporation formally registered as a non-profit entity in early 2016. For more information about the project contact the founding Director, Cecilé-Ann Pearce on 082 330 6987. The corporation’s website - is currently under construction.

Editorial Contact

Cecilé-Ann Pearce
Period Project South Africa
Cell - 082 330 6987

Chani and Tim asked ordinary South Africans to tell us how they felt about sanitary dignity. Here’s how they responded:

Due to the enormity of the issue we have seen an increased recognition that sanitary dignity cannot be isolated from sanitation, women’s health and education - but that it does deserve urgent attention as an issue on its own.

Thanks to community leaders, activists and non-profit organisations the issue is receiving some attention. They have lief a veil on the issue by actively driving menstrual health awareness and sanitary towel collection campaigns to keep girls in school and ensure sanitary dignity. One such intervention is by an organisation called RUCDI - the Ravensmead, Uitsig, Cravenby, Development Initiative. Established in 2012, the organisation’s aim is to drive the development and strengthening of social capital of the Cape Flats’ combined communities. When the RUCDI look at social capital strengthening they look at key needs of the community, development of capacity, resources and/or campaigns that address those needs.

A key community development initiative of RUCDI is the sanitary towel collection drive that is driven by a group of 15 - 20 women who form part of the alumni association of Ravensmead High. The association, also established in 2012, is a vehicle to drive social change to strengthen communities. Based on a needs assessment undertaken at Ravensmead High School, Erica Jacobs, Chairperson of RUCDI, identified girls who missed school for up to five days per month due to not having sanitary wear.

Jacobs stated that when they first started the sanitary dignity drive at Ravensmead High, it was to reduce the absenteeism statistics: “I started to engage the girls in conversation to find a solution to the problem and provide support. I don’t think any girl should be out of school in this day and age because of menstruation.”

The alumni association collected just over 1,000 packets of sanitary towels in 2014. This supply is hardly enough for a school of approximately 700 girls. But according to Erica only those who really need it will request either a packet or a few sanitary towels.

“The supply helped the girls with glipsies, those whose menstrual cycles are unpredictable, and those who genuinely could not afford to buy sanitary wear, their need affects their self-esteem so we allow them to go into the ‘sanitary towel’ room and help themselves, no questions asked.”

The sanitary towels that the women collected lasted for just over eighteen months but this supply has been depleted. But, Jacobs says they are currently recruiting and campaigning for support, in order to keep the assistance going.

We asked Erica a few questions about the campaign

If you were in a position of power, how would you tackle sanitary dignity issues in South Africa?

I would like to be the National Minister of Education to promulgate a bill to make health services part of education, like having school nurses back in schools. Health should be a part of the education journey. Services and prevention services would be instituted to tackle issues at an early age, we need to start working with 8 - 14 year olds to educate them on menstrual health and sexual education so by the time they are 15 they have the support and are aware of care and prevention methods.

Also government has a bigger role to play in prioritising women. There is not enough conversations around the issue of menstruation, and affordability of sanitary wear. An increased dialogues about this is needed at a government level.

In your years of dealing with the sanitary dignity issue, what would be a solution to the problem we face in South Africa? Free sanitary wear? No tax? Donations? Washable sanitary pads like we see being offered? Menstrual cups? What changes would you like to see in government’s policy or support of the issue?

We need health and adolescent youth friendly services. Health services for women must be looked at holistically. Sexual health education to combat pregnancies, HIV, sexual reproductive as a health - sanitary care is part of that. At a global level, not enough is being done at tackling the issue holistically.

I would look at a product that can be used multiple times, for example the cup and washable pads. Look at the most cost effective, environmentally friendly options as well.

Why do you think that this issue has not received the attention it deserves?

It is time consuming and most of us who tackle this particular issue have full time jobs.

From a health perspective it is not seen as life threatening. There is no risk of loss of life. Condoms are freely distributed because it is part of the HIV prevention programme. Menstruation doesn’t get the attention because in a contraceptive campaign the focus is on not falling pregnant, not on menstrual health. But, we need to remember that shame and dignity is invisible and although not life threatening it is still damaging the self-esteem.

Have you formed any partnerships with other organisations?

Not for profit organisations that assist other schools with sanitary towels asks if Ravensmead is close to Khayelitsha. And they won’t get involved because Ravensmead is not a township area. It is an urban area, but it doesn’t mean that people are not living in poverty. There is a perception that in areas where coloured and white people live, there is no need to support the sanitary needs of women and girls.

What are your focus areas now can others get involved, or even get advice on how to start similar projects to what you and RUCDI do?

Firstly, our main focus is reviving the sanitary towel donation drive at Ravensmead High. Our target is to collect 2000 packets of sanitary towels between October - December this year. All donations can be delivered to Marlene Ohlson, a teacher at the school. We will also distribute to Uitsig and Cravenby secondary schools. Any queries can be directed to Esmeralda Willems, on her mobile, number 076 427 7310 or via e-mail, [email protected].

Those interested in following the progress of RUCDI’s campaign, can connect with the alumni association on Twitter, the handle is @ravypeople.

We see ourselves as “conversation catalysts” for menstrual health management issues relating to sanitary dignity of impoverished girls and women of all races and cultures in South Africa. For us, the #CBStoryChallenge is an opportunity to tap into the power of technology, new ways in which to tell stories and access to a media network to create awareness.

Chani Macauley
Earl Abrahams

The issue of sanitary dignity is a complex – and global – one. It is definitely a conundrum that deserves attention. There is a lack of clarity on the various agendas driven by key role players (government, NGO’s and activists), where the potential for collaboration is, and how cultural appropriation plays a role in driving solutions that are sustainable in a diverse society like South Africa. In addition to these factors, conversations about menstrual health are still seen as “dirty” or “taboo”, as an “unimportant” issue, and have not been prioritised by national and local government.

Through a series of pieces, including blogs, interviews, videos, infographics and conversations, we want to highlight perspective, challenges, opportunities, and gain clarify about the key issues and possible solutions.

Nyameka Booi
Cecile-Ann Pearce

Over the next few weeks, we will focus specifically on the Western Cape in creating awareness and support for existing campaigns, stimulating engaging conversations, understand different perspectives, experiences and look at possible solutions to the conundrum. We will also unpack what local government’s plan and perspective is – all through various ways of storytelling.

We by no means believe that this will ever be a complexity-free issue and do not expect to find all of the answers. But we strongly believe in the power of starting conversations, and in those conversations lies a “community of menstrual health champions” who can drive some of the solutions proposed.

With support from:

We thank our donors for making this storytelling challenge possible