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Periods are a political matter too, PERIOD! 

Sitali Muyatwa, Head of SWA Secretariat Country Engagement Team
19 Feb 2020

A classmate could not leave her desk when it was time for break. She remained glued to her seat even when we tried to get her to move. When she finally gained the courage to stand up, she left and did not return to school for days. The same thing that kept her stuck to her desk was responsible for her not wanting to return to school. The Period! The fact that we had seen the blood – on the floor, on her dress, on the desk must have played a role in keeping her away from school. A publicized period can be devastating, PERIOD! 

Many of us did not know what to do but we felt sad for her. If my school had some pads within reach, she might have stayed that day and maybe she would have come back the following day. Recently I thought of my friend when news came from Nigeria that President Buhari had signed into law a Bill which removes value added tax on locally-manufactured sanitary towels, tampons, and pads which are important to thousands of girls and women. My friend and I went to a school which did not provide these products at the time – and honestly, I don’ think any school provided these services in my country then. Now there are many countries which are doing so. This is good news indeed. Nigeria joins a handful of countries which have raised this issue at a significantly political level and are responding with policies that address cost-barriers to menstrual products. South Africa reduced VAT on sanitary products, while some girls receive free pads in some countries – hopefully this helps to deal with period poverty.

As the SWA High level Chair, Mr. Kevin Rudd often says – if men menstruated a solution would have been found a long time ago. Menstruation affects us all. It is said that on average a woman spends about 7 years menstruating. Imagine a worst-case scenario where a woman chose not to go to school or to work for part of the time when she is menstruating because she lacks pads or tampons or a towel to use – the economic consequences can be significant. There is also the dignity question which is associated with the problem. The downtime and reduced productivity have enormous consequences which are not only economical but social as well.

In 2017, the SWA High-level Chair had bilateral meetings with a few ministers during the Stockholm World Water Week. He begun to sneak in messages on menstrual health into his talking points after attending a breakfast on “menstrual health: supporting adolescent girls” organized by UNICEF. In at least two of the meetings he urged male ministers to take leadership on the issue of menstrual health. The minister from Nigeria, H.E. Suleiman Adamu – seemingly already positively disposed to the issue at the time welcomed the message and while there were no concrete options discussed, it was clear he had it on his radar. The other minister, who was equally inspiring on several issues, quickly said something to the effect of “that relates more closely to the ministry of health” and he would see what messages could be passed on to the health ministry.

I am not sure what both ministers did after this but hearing the announcement from President Buhari of Nigeria brought out a few things. There are some economic responses to improve access to menstrual health products. Ministers responsible for water, sanitation and hygiene can forge meaningful relationships with their Finance counterpart and Heads of State and help remove barriers to much needed services. Politicians can do something about this. It may take time to get a concrete result, but it is worth starting the engagement and discussions with Finance Ministers and Heads of State. While the response might not be clear in the initial stages, there are now more examples and clarity on what politicians can do. Periods are a political matter too, PERIOD!