Reusable pads restore girls’ dignity

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Washable Sanitary towels – Leribe girls after receiving their packages

Pascalinah Kabi

LERIBE – The late Whitney Houston, a world-famous musician, once sang about how we all have dreams and how “everyone wants a chance to become someone”.

The rest of the song was about the importance of believing in the power of your dreams and how they could be realised through hard work and determination.

This is the kind of message most of us are constantly fed and people are seldom warned how sometimes, the small, apparently trivial issues can be the stone in the sling that slays dreams bigger than any goliath.

Just a small issue, a small circumstance of life. In the case of young *Selloane from Leribe, it was just one drop of blood that jettisoned her long cherished dreams.

Terrified and alone, the young girl fearfully peeped into her panties at the few drops of blood that stained her underwear.

From her sexual reproductive health (SRH) lessons in school, the young terrified teenager knew the blood drops were ushering her into womanhood – a stage she would rather skip.

“I come from a poor family. Buying pads for us is something of a luxury we cannot afford,” the 17-year-old recently told the Lesotho Times.

“I hated seeing that blood on my panties and so I had to choose between my dreams of going to the National University of Lesotho (NUL) to study nursing and finding an alternative to cut-short the menstrual cycle.”

That ‘alternative’, for many from disadvantaged backgrounds like Ms Selloane, was to fall pregnant.

Ms Selloane said there was that myth among most young girls in the Leribe community that pregnancy cured period pains.

“I didn’t suffer from period pains but I knew I wouldn’t worry about sanitary pads for a full nine months.

“So four months into my menstrual periods, I gave in to my boyfriend’s pressure to have sex for my own selfish reasons,” she said, adding that their sexual encounters became regular and she fell pregnant a few months later.

“But now I know better and pregnancy isn’t a solution to lack of access to pads because even today, I still don’t have pads,” she said.

Ms Selloane’s is an example of the tragic tale of crushed dreams due to lack and ignorance which Help Lesotho is seeking to end through its work of assisting at least 500 disadvantaged girls in the Leribe, Butha-Buthe and Thaba-Tseka districts.

The Leribe-based organisation which is dedicated to promoting HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention, gender equality and providing support to disadvantaged groups, decided to donate reusable sanitary towels to the girls after realising their monthly plight.

These washable towels can be used for at least six months with two shields with a moisture proof barrier and “wings” that wrap around a pair of underwear; eight tri-fold liners.

Each square liner can be folded in three to act as the pad and zip-lock bags used to wash the pads without touching the soiled towels as well as portable carrying bags.

One of the beneficiaries, 18-year-old Motebele Monotsi said the reusable pads are user-friendly and portable.

“My days of using cloths are over and I love the fact that these are very portable,” Ms Monotsi said.

“In the past, I would be forced to stay at home during my monthly menstrual cycle and at times I would miss important commitments like piece jobs.

“So with the reusable sanitary towels I don’t have to miss any commitments because they are easy to carry and the used pads can be stored in the sealable plastic bags,” Ms Monotsi said.

She said this would also save her at least M10 per month which would have been spent on buying sanitary towels.

Help Lesotho Youth Leadership officer, Thato Letšela told this publication that the reusable sanitary towels restored the girls’ dignity.

“Menstruation is a natural stage of womanhood every woman passes through regardless of one’s financial muscle and Help Lesotho realised that among the many challenges facing girls in these three districts was their inability to buy sanitary towels on monthly basis,” Ms Letšela said.

Ms Letšela said menstruation was uncomfortable and the lack of sanitary towels made the experience even more tortuous.

“Not only are we giving pads to the disadvantaged adolescents but teenage mothers have also received the reusable towels. Knowing how dispersible menstrual blood is, we have also provided the beneficiaries with sealable plastic bags which they can use to wash their reusable towels without touching them,” she said.

Help Lesotho Country Director, Shadrack Mutembei said his organisation took a sample of a reusable sanitary towel from Canada to a Maputsoe-based company, which in turn managed to produce the much-needed product.

“Each pack costs M150 and to date we have distributed over 500 sanitary towels to girls in Leribe, Thaba-Tseka and Butha-Buthe districts,” Mr Mutembei said.

He said they initiated the project after realising that girls in these three districts were missing school at least five days every month because of lack of sanitary towels.

He said that missing school five days in every month put girls at the disadvantaged point, compromising efforts being made to empower female in all aspects of life.

“We want our girls to stay in school so that they will in future be able to secure jobs of their choice, have a say in their future when it comes to marital choices and be able to provide for themselves,” he said, adding that we have also managed to restore their dignity.

He also said that the pads were easy to change and they were also environmental friendly.

Impact of sanitary towels on environment

The Conventional to Conscious study, published in October 2016 found that many people did not know that conventional sanitary pads contain a staggering amount of plastic — 90%.

The study found that each year more than 45 billion feminine hygiene products entered the waste stream.

“They are either incinerated, which releases harmful gasses and toxic waste, or sent to the landfill where they take hundreds of years to break down. On a planet, with a growing population, we must consider how the products we purchase impact the environment — the land, our water supply, and the ocean — for generations to come,” reads part of the study.

Another study, titled The Ecological Impact of Feminine Hygiene Products, claimed that the next big environmental challenge was that of disposable feminine hygiene products.

The American-based study said close to 20 billion sanitary napkins, tampons and applicators were dumped into North American landfills every year.

“When wrapped in plastic bags, feminine hygiene waste can take centuries to biodegrade. The average woman uses over 11 000 tampons during her lifetime, leaving behind residue far beyond her lifespan,” reads part of the study.

The colossal waste burden however, isn’t the only ecological impact of disposable feminine hygiene products.

A Life Cycle Assessment of tampons conducted by the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, found that the largest impact on global warming was caused by the processing of LDPE (low-density polyethylene, a thermoplastic made from the monomer ethylene) used in tampon applicators as well as in the plastic back-strip of a sanitary napkin requiring high amounts of fossil fuel generated energy.

A year’s worth of a typical feminine hygiene product leaves a carbon footprint of 5.3 kg CO2 equivalents.

The study noted that over 50% of the world’s population menstruates, and yet conversations about feminine hygiene and the ecological impact of product choices woman make in the space, were not discussed.

“In fact, the taboo surrounding menstrual periods stunted the development of new products in the space with little to no innovations for over 80 years,” the study noted.

The study alleged that major corporations such like Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble have argued that there would be tremendous friction involved in shifting consumer behaviour away from disposable products to reusable ones.

“Menstrual cups, reusable pads and sponges are readily available but haven’t gained much traction so far.”

The study called for an urgent need to innovate and find sustainable and yet practical solutions to feminine hygiene challenges.

It further said the problem with stigma was that it often denies women a vocabulary to deal with the issues around menstrual health and hygiene.

“Open dialogue is the first step in changing the way women deal with menstruation and can create awareness around the need to make a switch.”

Contacted for comment, Lesotho Meteorological Service (LMS) principal meteorologist France Mokoena said they had not conducted a study on the impact of sanitary towel production on the environment.

“Our main interest or focus is the impact products have on the space which might cause climate change and up to date we haven’t conducted any study on the cause of sanitary towels on changing climatic conditions,” Mr Mokoena said.

The Ministry of Health’s Senior Health Inspector Mosepeli Ralikae is on record, saying that sanitary disposal was still a huge problem in Lesotho.

“Waste management in Lesotho is still a serious matter, especially when it comes to sanitary towels, condoms and disposable nappies. They all have dire consequences on our environment and toilets,” she said, adding the best way of disposing of sanitary towels was to burn them.

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