JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — On a list of election promises, it’s eye-catching: free sanitary pads for poor women.
South African President Jacob Zuma has mentioned free pads repeatedly in his recent speeches, including somewhat awkwardly in his State of the Nation address, and the promise of free sanitary pads is listed in the African National Congress party manifesto for the May 18 municipal elections.
“We will promote the provision of sanitary towels to women on the indigent list of municipalities,” Zuma told a crowd of 120,000 supporters at the ANC’s anniversary celebrations earlier this year.
But while the promise of free pads appears progressive — intended to help destitute women and girls who miss school when they have their periods — it ignores a much bigger issue for South African women: the government’s neglect of the horrific epidemic of rape and violence against women. That massive problem is not mentioned anywhere in Zuma’s speeches or on the ANC’s election manifesto, apart from an oblique reference to the creation of safe houses for abused people.
This is a shocking omission, charge critics, for a country that is supposed to be one of the world’s most progressive when it comes to gender equality. “Non-sexism” is enshrined in South Africa’s constitution, and more than 40 percent of the country’s cabinet ministers are women. The ANC’s official goal is to reach a 50/50 balance among elected men and women.
Glenda Muzenda, a South African gender rights activist, says that the emphasis on free sanitary pads is trivializing women’s issues when South Africa has one of the highest rates of rape in the world. A recent study found that one in four South African men had admitted to rape, and many of these cases are never prosecuted.
“And this is not mentioned in a State of the Nation address?” she asked. “I don’t think women need pads. They need someone to say, we need action on gender-based violence.”
Muzenda said she thinks the focus on free sanitary napkins was developed by men in the party in order to appeal to rural voters. “I think that it’s a way of gaining votes for the ANC, because the votes from the rural women are higher than from urban women,” she said.
Gugu Ndima, spokeswoman for the Young Communist League of South Africa, which has campaigned for free pads, said that many women and girls miss days from work and school because they can’t afford sanitary pads and must stay home. This has a “serious impact on socio-economic circumstances” of the country, she said.
“We believe [free pads] would relieve the burden of women. It’s something that is a basic need but has been commodified by the private sector. They make huge profits off this,” Ndima said.
It is also a hygienic issue, with many women resorting to using newspaper or cloth, she added.
“There is no minor issue when it comes to women’s issues in South Africa. We should never undermine women’s issues,” Ndima said. “This actually affirms the fact that the government has been at the forefront of championing the needs of women.”
The sanitary pad issue has been promoted by the ANC’s youth league, which argues that if the government can provide free condoms, which it does as part of HIV-AIDS prevention, then it should also provide free pads to women from poor communities as a “basic human right.”
“It can never be correct that women are subjected to unhealthy and unhygienic practices when responding to natural realities because they don't have money," Jacob Lebogo, Limpopo provincial ANC youth league secretary, told African Eye, a local news agency.
While free sanitary pads would indeed promote gender equality by helping girls to attend school, violence against women continues to damage the lives of many South Africans in far more serious ways, argued Mona Hakimi, communications program officer for Gender Links, a southern Africa-based NGO.
"Sanitary towels won’t make a radical difference to young girls and women if they constantly fear the rampage of rape and violence in their everyday lives," Hakimi wrote in an opinion piece.
Muzenda suspects that the ANC may be reluctant to take a strong stance on the issue of violence against women because of Zuma’s legal history. Zuma was tried for rape in 2006, and was acquitted of charges that he raped a family friend who was HIV positive. The victim was verbally abused by Zuma’s supporters as she entered and exited the courtroom.
“Zuma is not talking about gender-based violence,” Muzenda said. “If Zuma wanted to redeem himself he would talk about gender-based violence every time he spoke. It would start to put ideas into the young people.”