Women entrepreneurs play a key role in alleviating “period poverty” in South Africa for the estimated 3.7 million girls unable to afford feminine hygiene products, with menstruation-related issues the leading cause of school absenteeism.
These female entrepreneurs are also creating jobs in the manufacturing and distribution of sanitary pads, menstrual cups, and other feminine hygiene products to impoverished women and learners free of charge. Period poverty – a lack of access to feminine hygiene products and menstruation-related information and facilities – is a barrier to educational achievement and economic participation for women and girls in lower-income households, putting them at greater risk of poverty and unemployment and worsening South Africa’s already high levels of inequality.
The World Bank estimates that globally, approximately 500 million women and girls experience period poverty every month. In South Africa, it is estimated that 30% of girls miss school while menstruating, for up to five days a month – due to lack of access to menstrual health and hygiene products, as well as insufficient water and sanitation in disadvantaged schools, stigma, pain, and discomfort.
Period poverty has sparked the interest of South African women entrepreneurs, possibly because they are more likely to empathise with challenges related to menstruation. Many prioritise recruiting and training historically disadvantaged women to participate in the manufacturing and distribution processes.
While the government has made some advances in addressing period poverty, such as zero-rating sanitary pads for VAT, state-led initiatives have lagged behind those of other countries, such as Scotland and New Zealand where feminine hygiene products are available free of charge. South Africa supplies free feminine hygiene products only at the lowest quintile of impoverished schools, but these efforts have sometimes been hampered by inefficiencies and corruption.
The government should more actively direct its efforts at alleviating period poverty to support the women entrepreneurs who are alleviating multiple social challenges simultaneously. Women and girls who experience period poverty are subject not only to socio-economic exclusion but health risks too, as they turn to potentially harmful alternatives such as unhygienic rags, cloths, leaves, or even cow dung, exposing them to the risk of infection and reproductive health problems.
The myths, such as the belief that menstrual blood is “dirty”, perpetuate cultural taboos about menstruation, often resulting in menstruators’ feelings of shame and embarrassment. This makes it more difficult for women to access feminine hygiene products and increases the likelihood of menstruation-related absenteeism, adversely impacting school attendance and participation in the workforce.
The unsanitary condition of many schools serving poor communities made it more difficult for girls to practice menstrual hygiene and dispose of waste. For example, according to the SA Human Rights Commission, more than 3200 schools still use pit toilets, more than 250 schools do not have running water and more than 200 schools have no sanitary facilities at all.
Women entrepreneurs played a pivotal role in disseminating accurate information about menstruation.
The entrepreneurs’ products are distributed via schools, NGOs, churches, homeless shelters, orphanages, and workplaces. During these events, they often conduct menstruation education intended to debunk myths and taboos about menstruation.
More importantly, entrepreneurs sometimes assume broader activism roles positively impacting menstrual health management. For example, some participated in the Menstrual Health Management Symposium the Department of Women held in 2018, lending their voices to addressing period poverty.
In addition, some of these entrepreneurs played a key role in formulating the SABS standards for reusable sanitary products, which enable entrepreneurs who manufacture reusable feminine hygiene products to compete for government tenders to supply impoverished schools.
* The Women’s Report, now in its 13th year, is published by the Stellenbosch Business School and aims to offer evidence-based insight into the life and work experiences of women in South Africa.
The 2023 Women’s Report focuses on women’s entrepreneurship and can be downloaded on 9 August at https://www.womensreport.africa/