Calls for the South African government to make sanitary pads free to help those who can’t afford and access menstrual products continue to mount. Recently, I_Menstruate, a movement founded and led by our fellow Tracey Malawana, hosted the first leg of the exhibition called Exesheni (meaning ‘that time of the month’) in Franschhoek, Western Cape. 

René Sparks

This is part of ongoing efforts to intensify the advocacy work aimed at eradicating ‘period poverty’. The exhibition showcases the realities that young girls face during their periods, both at school and home, by teaching about the menstrual cycle and sharing stories from different generations, ranging from their first experiences with periods to the evolution of menstrual products, including disposable pads, tampons, menstrual cups, and reusable underwear.

In 2023, research conducted among 541 girl learners from 18 schools in disadvantaged communities in South Africa showed that 83% of the participants did not have regular access to menstrual hygiene products at school or home, and 78% did not know about menstruation when they had their first period. The lack of proper menstrual hygiene access has a direct impact on the education of girl learners. Girls may miss school days during menstruation, resulting in educational gaps and reduced academic performance.

“Menstruation is more than a biological process: it’s a matter of dignity, equity, and basic human rights. This exhibition is a wake-up call. It invites everyone to reflect on their experiences and join us in challenging stigma, celebrating resilience, and advocating for a world where menstruation is respected and dignified,” says Malawana.

The exhibition is largely driven by young people from diverse backgrounds who live in townships and rural areas. These girls often encounter the widespread failure of initiated teachings and conversations about menstruation and the universal stigma and shame.

Molebogeng Chochoe, a Grade 9 pupil from the North West, says growing up in a rural area has made her more aware of girls who lack information about the menstrual cycle and hygiene.

“Through this movement, I want to be the voice for the voiceless. I want the government to understand that period poverty is real and that it affects us because we cannot afford to buy menstrual products,” says Chochoe.

Tsholofelo Phooko, who is a teacher, says that she gets to experience the stigma and lack of confidence that girls experience when they have their periods.

“Women deserve to go through the menstruation process in a dignified way. With the high prices of menstrual products, we need access to free sanitary pads. This is a call to the government to support and understand period poverty,” says Phooko.

The next exhibition will be hosted in August during Women’s Month in Johannesburg and will later move to other provinces during the International Day of the Girl in October.

If you are a Changemaker in your community and are committed to the social determinants of health, click here to apply for the Tekano Fellowship programme.

Application deadline: 31 July 2024