By Karina McGinley
Karina is participating in the Gold Global Citizen Award. This is the fourth of her Global Blogs from South Africa.
On Sunday 9th August I logged onto Twitter to see hundreds of tweets about Kiran Gandi, a women who ‘went viral’ and received what could be safely called a mixed reaction for running the gruelling London Marathon on her period without any sanitary products.
On her blog she stated the rationale behind her decision: ‘I ran with blood dripping down my legs for sisters who don’t have access to tampons and sisters who despite cramping and pain, hide it away and pretend like it doesn’t exist’.
Sunday 9th August was also an important day in a country over 8,500 kilometres from the 26.2 miles that Gandi ran. The 9th August is South African National’s Women’s Day, a public holiday since 1994. Yes, this came as a shock to me too (so much so that I took a picture of the first calendar that I saw it marked on!). I found it remarkable that a country so often (and rightly so) lambasted in the international press for the gender inequalities and imbalanced power relations that permeate its society. Shocking headlines regarding the incidence of rape and domestic violence are often at the forefront of my mind when I think of the country.
The 9th August ‘pays homage to the women of our nation; – the mothers, the wives, the sisters and the daughters who fought tirelessly against the tyranny of the Apartheid government’. The date was selected to celebrate the anniversary of the march of around 20,000 women to the iconic Union Buildings, Pretoria in 1956 to protest against the law that required ‘Black’ South Africans to carry an internal passport (pass), which facilitated segregation.
However, not all publicity surrounding South African Woman’s Day 2015 was good. This advertisement by the pen manufacturer BIC caused uproar and was subsequently removed from their Facebook page. Anyway, far removed from the Twittersphere lies a different reality for many South African women (and millions more around the globe) and relates back to the issue that Gandi endeavoured to highlight, not all women have access to adequate sanitary products.
In western society it is often perceived that the biggest dilemma women face surrounding periods is where to discreetly hide their sanitary products in their handbag. However, in the majority world the cost of sanitary products places them out of the reach of many who struggle to meet their subsistence needs. This means that women increase their risk of infection and damaging their health through unhygienic measures, such as the use (and reuse) of old rags and newspaper to stem the flow of blood.
The lack of sanitary products can result in girls missing days at school. If school absenteeism for girls equates into 3 to 5 days per month (the average length of a period), this means that they miss almost a quarter of the time in school. Hypothetically, if this translates into a quarter (25%) drop in grades the repercussions are disastrous. For example, an A (80%) would drop to a D (55%), jeopardising/ completely obliterating chances of university scholarships, a lifeline for many with dreams of attaining a third-level qualification. Later in life this also translates into women missing days in work, thus decreasing household income leaving them unable to pay bills or meet basic needs. This in turn may force women into casual sex-work, increasing their chances of contracting a Sexually Transmitted Disease. (It really is true that every pressing issue in the global south is interlinked!)
South Africa is famous for its cultural diversity. The importance of culture in South African society can be understood through the famous Zulu proverb, ‘A man without culture is like a zebra without stripes’.
I am going to quickly look at Zulu attitudes towards menstruation. Harriett Ngubane (1977), an anthropologist of Zulu descent, succintly explained Zulu beliefs regarding menstruation. She revealed how it is a Zulu custom to slaughter a goat when a girl gets her first period. The girl is then secluded away for the night, she returns the next day bathed, she is then smeared in red clay and taught about adulthood by other women. Ngubane highlighted that menstruating women are believed to have a ‘contagious pollution’, which is dangerous to other humans, animals and even crops! It is widely held in this culture that cattle may ‘fall ill’ if a menstruating woman was to walk with them!
A belated Happy South African Women’s Day to these ladies, just a handful from hundreds of wonderful women, who I have met on my visits! #YouStrikeAWomanYouStrikeARock
For more information see: Ngubane, H., ‘Body and mind in Zulu medicine: an ethnography of health and disease in Nyuswa-Zulu thought and practice’ (1977).