Photographer: Basetsana Maluleka
In 2017, Nokuzola Ndwande posted a tweet, “Pads should be free and condoms should be sold,” in order to start a conversation about the need for free menstrual products in South Africa. It ended up generating more conversation, catapulting Ndwande into a life of activism. Since then, she’s been at the forefront of the menstrual rights movement in South Africa, successfully convincing the government to remove taxes on period products and setting aside money to distribute free period products. Now she’s engaged in trying to pass a menstrual rights law that would make history. Kt by Knix spoke with Ndwande about her journey towards activism, what it’s like to experience period poverty in South Africa and what still needs to be done.
How did you become a menstrual rights activist?
In 2014, I was working at an accounting firm and experienced period pain to the point where I was unable to function. I vomited at work and had to go to the hospital. The doctor did some scans and told me that there was some endometrial tissue on my uterus and suggested I might have endometriosis.
When I went back to work the next morning, I was feeling embarrassed about what had happened and a male colleague asked me about why I was feeling so sick. That’s when I realized that it’s important to deconstruct the narrative and educate everyone around on matters of health and hygiene management. I founded Team Free Sanitary Pads in 2017 with the objective of eradicating poverty, and fighting for women's rights in South Africa, so that women can have access to dignity, career advancement opportunities and girls can stay in school.
My biggest achievement so far has been successfully campaigning the South African government to remove taxes on period products and to set aside a national government expenditure for menstrual products.
Now I’m working on putting pressure on the South African government to legislate menstrual health and hygiene. On change.org we have over 27,000 signatures calling them to urgently prioritize menstrual health and hygiene management, by passing the Menstrual Rights Law, which would call on them to introduce paid menstrual leave and set aside a national government expenditure for eradicating period poverty.
What does period poverty look like in South Africa?
Right now, over 7 million menstruators in schools do not have access to the conditions they need to have a safe period. In rural areas, there’s lack of access to safe sanitation, flushing toilets and clean water. There are only pit toilets that expose them to infection. Toxic shock syndrome is also a concern for anyone who has to wear the same tampon for a very long time.
How do you manage your period when you only have access to a pit toilet?
A pit toilet is not an ideal place. There’s no basin to wash your hands in, or toilet paper, so you end up using newspapers or other unsanitary items to wipe yourself. If the infrastructure is damaged they risk drowning in a pit toilet. When you’re exposed to this kind of environment it affects your mental health and discourages you from engaging with society until that time of the month passes. That means girls are missing out on important quality education, and are not able to access opportunities in the same way as boys.
What still needs to be accomplished?
There’s still a lot of work to do because even though the government allotted $157 million per year to go towards delivering free menstrual products, that money goes to the local governments where there is still mismanagement and corruption. Sometimes the money is not spent on what it should be, which is why I’m calling for the Menstrual Rights Law. In addition to paid menstrual leave it includes a call for quality menstrual products, which means they need to address the quality of products being distributed. (Note: In Africa, some brands of pads contain ingredients that cause irritation.) We’re also calling for equal representation for women in government, as well as equal pay for women because often even when they are working, their wage is not enough to afford the menstrual products they need to live a healthy life.
Photographer: Basetsana Maluleka
Why is it important for you to do the work you do?
It’s empowering because once you know more about your body, you’re able to take charge and be confident in who you are and where you’re going in life. Activism has been liberating for me because I no longer fear experiencing my menstrual period or stigma for opening up about my menstrual health. That’s what I hope to instill in young people, as well as the older generation who didn’t have the same opportunity to be open about having a period. Menstrual rights are human rights. I’m doing this because I want to build a better world for menstruators.