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Women speak out on high costs of sanitary products.

Feminine sanitary products are finding a new place on the agenda in Zimbabwe, as women join together to make their voices heard on how high costs are affecting their daily lives.

During a recent visit to the supermarket to buy an emergency supply of tampons, I bumped into a friend. While checking out the range of products available we naturally began whining about the astronomical costs of the monthly requirements.

A packet of 10 average quality pads cost about Zim $500 000, while a well-known brand of tampons averages $1 200 000. That's 5-12 % of monthly wages for a worker in a textile industry earning an average $10 000 000 a month, and not much better for a teacher who takes home about $25 000 000. Some cheaper alternatives are available for about 300 000 per packet, but they are painful to use.

Hours after the supermarket meeting, I was struck by how openly the two of Us had freely discussed "this feminine problem" in the supermarket. I immediately saw the one silver lining around our country's economic crisis for me and thousands of other women and girls. The shortage of sanitary ware and the high costs when available, in my view has been a blessing in disguise for gender activists. The shortages have brought women closer together and given them enough courage to speak about feminine concerns in public without any embarrassment.

Looking back, I could not recall a single incident when I had so openly talked about issues surrounding that time of the month. If we said anything, it was in whispers and in toilets or corners far from male ears. I guess the silence was because everything was okay. Cotton wool, pads and tampons of varied quality and price were readily available in shops.

In the past five years, things have taken a turn for the worse. It's no secret that for most Zimbabwean women having your period is now a real pain because of the indignity of menstruating without proper and adequate sanitary ware. One writer has likened the plight of Zimbabwean women to "going to war with a gun minus bullets."

For most schoolgirls, unemployed and low-income earning working women, life now literally comes to a standstill at "that time of the month" because one is constantly worrying lest dresses get spoilt because of inadequate protection. In desperation, some women use newspapers, dirty old clothes and barks of trees. This has triggered an increase in vaginal infections, which most women cannot afford to get treated.

The rise in vaginal infections is leading to more domestic violence by partners who do not know the difference between sexually transmitted infections and vaginal infections. Even more worrying is that health experts warn that such infections provide an optimal environment for the spreading of sexually transmitted infections particularly HIV.

Faced with such scenario, it was inevitable that Zimbabwean women would gather the courage to speak out and act to correct the situation. Tired of the monthly indignities, women have organised themselves, under the auspices of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) gender desk, to source affordable sanitary ware. Led by the feisty Thabitha Khumalo, the labour body is coordinating the campaign codenamed: Dignity. Period!

Besides speaking out about the medical and psychological dangers that the shortages pose to women and girls, the campaigners are sourcing sanitary ware from well wishers to distribute to women throughout the country. Ms. Khumalo would be the first to admit that so far, the response to the campaign has been instructive.

The campaign has again reminded gender activists how insensitive current leaders are to the needs of women. This was evident when the first consignment was held up by the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority demanding duty of 700 000 rands. What really irked me, as a woman who can barely afford to buy a month's supply of sanitary ware was the fact that they used this as government an opportunity to generate revenue from such an essential commodity.

There is no argument that they were trying to safeguard local producers, since major producers relocated several years ago. Sanitary ware is not a luxury and should be allowed into the country duty free.

Another lesson for Zimbabwean women from this campaign has been that speaking out for ourselves pays. The amount of media interest that the campaign has generated has encouraged donors to support the initiative. At the same time, the publicity helped to inform desperate and dejected women that there was help at hand.

Ms Khumalo admits that although the objective was initially to assist women affiliated to the ZCTU, the campaign has had to broaden its scope to include vendors, women living with HIV and schoolchildren who have been writing to the organisers asking to be included in the programme. This expansion will not only ensure all deserving women have peace of mind but I want to believe a sizeable number of capable women will help with the distribution. Dignity. Period! can become a shining example of what women are capable of delivering.

What really gets me smiling is that this time round, women have not waited for a male benefactor to come forward to speak on their behalf. Instead, Zimbabwean women are doing it for themselves. Now when I am shopping around for sanitary ware, I no longer whine and complain. Now, I take time to reflect how the economic meltdown is prompting Zimbabwean women to start using all those ideas and skills they acquired over the years from empowerment workshops and seminars to make a direct and meaningful difference on the quality of their lives.

Miriam Madziwa is a freelance journalist and is based in Zimbabwe. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.
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Title Annotation:Zimbabwe ...
Author:Madziwa, Miriam
Publication:Our Rights
Date:Jul 1, 2006
Words:964
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