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Ending cycle of shame

Durban 06022013 Sue Barnes shows the panties she has designed.Picture:Marilyn Bernard

Durban 06022013 Sue Barnes shows the panties she has designed.Picture:Marilyn Bernard

Published Feb 13, 2013


Adding sanitary products to the monthly shop is something most women give little thought to. They may begrudge spending hard-earned cash on unglamorous necessities, but they have little choice but to pay up.

Not so with impoverished girls and women. When finding money for food is a struggle, buying pads and tampons is impossible – and it has serious consequences, as Cowies Hill’s Sue Barnes found out.

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Barnes discovered two years ago that girls in poor communities were not going to school when they menstruated.

With no money for sanitary products, and some not even having underwear, they had no choice but to stay home. Some used newspaper, others put sand and leaves in their pants, both hopelessly inadequate and carrying a high risk of infection.

“I was horrified,” says Barnes. “With nine million girls in their teenage years, an estimated 80 percent were missing school because of menstruation. I felt this was unacceptable and I had to do something.”

Barnes started collecting products from friends but realised the problem called for a longer term solution – something that would be reusable.

A pattern maker and designer with a large clothing chain, she set about designing a panty with a built-in pad, but it was too costly. Then she tried a panty with a slip-in pad, but that was not practical. Finally she designed a panty with a clip-on, reusable pad, which worked well – and the Subz Panty Pad was born.

It has a hydrophilic, absorbent layer and a hydrophobic (repelling moisture) layer, which keeps the body dry, and finally a plastic layer for extra protection. It clips into the panty with poppers. When used, the pad is rinsed, washed in soapy water, rinsed again and dried.

Barnes then created packs containing three pairs of panties, nine pads and nine plastic resealable bags and had 100 packs made up, which she distributed. The more she distributed, the more she realised the extent of the need.

“This problem is not confined to KZN, it is throughout South Africa, Africa and the world. There are girls who are missing school when they menstruate and they need reusable sanitary products.”

Interestingly, there is interest worldwide into the use of reusable sanitary products as women of all socio-economic groups seek a greener way of living.

It is estimated that a woman will use 8 000 pads or 17 000 tampons in her lifetime. Millions of pads, tampons and applicators find their way into landfills and “green” alternatives include menstrual cups and reusable pads.

Over the past year, the Subz project has escalated.

Barnes has secured funding from Afrisun, Unilever and Hirsch’s, as well as from smaller funders and estimates she has distributed more than 30 000 packs.

The packs are made locally, using local materials, with the exception of the hydrophilics, which are imported.

Barnes is adamant that the product be made locally.

“A pack costs R210 and can be used for five years,” says Barnes. “That means with a donation of R210, a girl can go to school, uninterrupted, for five years.”

In the mornings, Barnes, a busy wife and mother of two teenage daughters, works at her quality control job in Durban.

In the afternoons, she heads off to urban and rural schools, distributing panty packs and educating girls on puberty and menstruation.

“When a girl asked me once: ‘Where does the blood come from?’, I realised that education on these issues was woefully lacking. If language is a barrier, a teacher or principal translates, but mostly, English is understood.”

Feedback has been heartwarming.

“The girls are so excited to get help with this as they don’t want to miss school,” she says. “For some, it is the first time they have received panties.”

The scope of the project is limitless and the problem extends way beyond our borders.

Businesswoman Margaret Hirsch recently took more than 100 panty packs to Zanzibar, where she has a holiday home, and her company is a strong supporter of the project.

“Knowing that there are girls in a similar situation to South Africans, I took a supply of dignity packs with me to distribute,” she said. “We live next door to Matemwe village. There are 300 residents, jobs are scarce and the women don’t have access to any form of sanitary protection – or panties.

“My translator – a female lawyer – said that it was impossible to go to work when she had a period. The packs were received with superstition at first but once their use was thoroughly explained in Swahili, they took them happily.”

At the moment, Barnes is doing the fund-raising but she would like to see government supporting the project.

“More support is needed, so more girls can be helped,” she says.

* Barnes can be reached at [email protected]

* Over the years, women have been creative in the materials they have used to collect menstrual fluids: animal pelts, mosses, sea sponges and seaweed, cotton, wool, rags and vegetable fibres. Sponges and cotton wadding were used as tampons in Europe in the 17th century. Pads were made from oil silk (easily washed), cotton fibres, cotton waste, wood wool, wadding, paper, wood fibres, linen.

Ancient Egyptian women made tampons from softened papyrus. In other countries early tampons were made of lint wrapped around lightweight wood, wool, vegetable plant fibres and in Equatorial Africa women used rolls of grass.


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