Sanitary Towel Survey Narrative


The highly emotive gender issue relating to the negative effects on the education of the girl child due to menstruation has captured the attention of the world.  In an environment where gender discrimination against women is still rife, the additional burden of menses impacting negatively on school attendance for girls, merits serious attention.  However, whilst there is no doubt this is an issue of concern, many urban legends abound about the exact size and scope of the problem.  It has sprouted many highly visible media campaigns from climbing the highest peaks, to plumbing the proverbial depths of the deepest oceans and running the length of the Great Wall of China, for the cause.

What are the facts?

In August 2016, AfricaCheck ( conducted an investigation and published a report on the question:

Do 7 million SA girls miss school every month due to the lack of sanitary pads?

The investigation was precipitated by the protest action at the 2016 International Aids Conference where the SA Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi was heckled on behalf of the “7 million girls” who miss school every month because they don’t have money to buy sanitary pads.   The report also makes reference to activist Ntombi Zodwa Maphosa’s statement to Conference that girls miss out on 25% of learning during a school year.  It goes on further to state that the “7 million” claim had been circulating since 2014, when two cyclists were interviewed by News 24 as they were embarking on an arduous cycle tour on behalf of Subz, an organisation raising funds to provide re-usable sanitary towels for  the “millions” of SA school girls who don’t have access to sanitary pads.

In attempting to ascertain the data source for the figure, Africa Check was told that the figure was deduced from the 2011 census report produced by Statistics South Africa.  The census report showed that there were 9 million girls in SA between the ages of 10 and 19.  Seven million of them fell in the lower living standards measure (LSM) brackets.  However this statistic was shown to be incorrect and the 2015 census put the figure at just over 5.1 million of girls in this age bracket and further mining of the recorded data shows that in terms of the deductive reasoning of Subz,  potentially 3 770.514 girls are not able to afford sanitary pads.  While the figure remains concerning, it does negate the “7 million” claim.

Furthermore, in the year that these claims were made it showed that there were 6.3 million girls registered in schools from pre-grade R to grade 12.  Of this number, 1 568 369 were in grades pre-R, Grade R, 1 and 2. This means that they were not likely to be menstruating.

So while the “7 million”  number has been negated, the question still remains: “How many girls miss school because of their inability to source sanitary pads?” From the Africa Check report it is apparent that there are few reliable research reports that give clear insight into the size and scope of the problem ibn order that appropriate and effective solutions can be found.

Community Chest Sanitary Towel Survey   

In 2015, Community Chest in partnership with Johnson & Johnson and Stayfree, as supplier of the product, conducted a sanitary towel campaign in a number of schools in Cape Town.  While it is conceded that the research sample was limited to schools in the Cape Metro and the demographic profile was limited, there are key features of the were survey that have relevance.  The Campaign has the following elements:

  • provision free dignity packs of sanitary towels and sexuality education material to all girls in the target schools
  • workshops of sexuality education for girls and boys at schools
  • a  questionnaire for girls to complete that probed patterns on absenteeism due to menstruation and other sexual education and feminine health issues

10 High Schools participated in the survey.

Name of School No of Respondents %
 1.    Lentegeur High 547 24.3
 2.    Wynberg High 416 18.4
 3.    Rosendal High 319 14.1
 4.    Elsewood High 263 11.7
 5.    Thembilihle High 195 8.6
 6.    Sizimisele High 191 8.5
 7.    Strandfontein High 185 8.2
 8.    Tafelsig High 72 3.2
 9.    Matthew Goniwe High 65 2.9
10.    Inthlanganiso 2 0.1
Total Number of Respondents 2257  

Additional notes

The issue of access to sanitary pads for girls at school is a highly sensitive and emotive issue as it adds a further burden to the school going girl child and success at school.  Girls are generally expected to do chores and family care tasks at home, that boys are not expected to do. Hence missing school due to a lack of sanitary pads does have an additional negative influence on the education of girls.

Quality information is required to ensure that the prevalence and geographic scope of the problem needs to be established so that the myriad of solutions that are being applied in a “spray and pray” way can be directed to where the problem is, in a way that respects the dignity of the girls in need of the support for the duration of the time that they require it.

The Community Chest survey highlights some other issues that girls encounter with regards to feminine health like poor sanitation at schools and the extreme discomfort that some girls experience with pelvic cramps during menses that may be indicative of other health issues or the lack of adequate sexuality education that makes girls unprepared for the onset of menstruation.


  • As there are so many fundraising campaigns for this issue it is important that there is collaboration of the efforts so that the funding makes a meaningful impact on the issue and funds and products are not misdirected
  • An audit should be conducted should to map the current scope and reach campaigns to distribute free sanitary towels to determine where the gaps are
  • Further extensive research needs to be done so that there is reliable information regarding the size and scope of the problem that can be used to ensure that all school girls who do not have access to sanitary wear are accommodated in the supply chain
  • Alternative, more cost- effect, but safe methods should be offered to girls
  • Solutions should not be one-off hit and miss in nature, but should be sustained through the school life of affected girls
  • As 39 % of girls reported that they could not afford sanitary towels, it is recommended that an advocacy campaign be launched for free access, or tax free or subsidy schemes for the provision of sanitary towels for women