Marie Grace Uwiragiye is 17 years old. She lives with her elder sister who takes care of her in Gisozi Sector, Gasabo District.
She is one of many girls who cannot afford to buy sanitary pads during their menstrual period. She uses available methods of using kitenge cloths, a common strategy for girls like her.
“My sister bought me knickers and told me I should use pieces of cloth.”
The clothes are worn inside one’s knickers, and must be changed at least three times a day.
“I wash them at night, and I hang them inside the house, where people don’t see.”
This is a shared experience with her neighbours who include Chantal Ingabire, 22, who is a domestic worker.
“I used to buy sanitary pads. But since the lockdown, I haven’t been paid because my bosses were not working. So, now I use what is available, cloths.”
Although poverty was there even before the lockdown in late March, some adolescent girls only accessed sanitary pads when they were at school through the government initiated ‘Icyumba cy’umukobwa’, lightly translated as ‘Girl’s room’, where they get menstrual health products for free.
This brings up a question on how the adolescent girls are coping without the services and products, since schools are closed until September.
Divine Ingabire, Co-founder and Executive Director of IMatter, an organization that provides vulnerable women with free sanitary pads explained to The New Times how they have been helping the girls.
“We work with schools’ administrations to reach the girls because most of our beneficiaries live around the school. So, the school administration calls the girls to the school according to the number we can help, so they can pick up the products.”
Although Ingabire admits that there is a bigger demand for their assistance, she thinks what they are doing helps a lot.
“It is very different from when they go back to use pieces of cloth. We are continuing with this campaign so that people think of this problem as their own,” she added.
Since the Covid-19 lockdown, IMatter has already helped three schools with over 1,000 sanitary pads. They also helped another organization of needy women to break period poverty with over 200 sanitary pads.
The struggle of affording menstrual products can cause girls to stay home from school and work, with long-lasting consequences on their education and economic opportunities.
It can also worsen existing vulnerabilities, where women and girls can use dangerous coping mechanisms.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reports that some studies have shown that some schoolgirls have engaged in transactional sex to pay for menstrual products.
Health impacts of poor menstrual hygiene
Although the commonly used alternative for pads is clothes in Rwanda, the UNFPA reports that in some cases, women and girls use rags, leaves, newspapers or other makeshift items to absorb or collect menstrual blood.
This may lead to urogenital infections, such as yeast infection, vaginosis or urinary tract infections, when women and girls are not able to bathe and/or change or clean their menstrual supplies regularly. Or when the objects they use aren’t clean enough or healthy at all.
In an effort to make sanitary pads more affordable and accessible, the Government removed Value Added Tax on the products in December 2019. However, prices largely remained unchanged and in some cases increased instead.
The girls request that pads be made affordable for them to buy. Some of them have never even used a sanitary pad, ever.
This is a shared thought with the activists.
“We would like to work with the private sector so that prices can be reduced to a more affordable rate,” Ingabire says.
However, she adds that they know it is something that needs to be well planned because the private sector also needs to make profits.