In more menstrual news, donated sanitary pads are finally reaching Zimbabwe, where a shortage has forced many women to make do with newspapers and tree bark and suffer gnarly vaginal infections as a result. Given that there's about one doctor for every 6,700 people in Zimbabwe, the public-health implications of the shortage are pretty dire; local Women's Advisory Council head Thabitha Khumalo told the BBC, "We are sitting on a health time-bomb.
The shortage is a byproduct of severe economic crisis in the country, which faces a crippling deficit; an overvalued exchange rate; an inflation rate over 780 percent; and is no longer receiving support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). There's currently very little foreign exchange between Zimbabwe and other countries, and citizens face widespread shortages of food and basic supplies. The country's unemployment rate is reported to be between 75 and 80 percent; the monthly minimum wage for those who are employed is equivalent to about $20; and a box of sanitary pads costs the equivalent of five to 10 dollars. All of which adds up mean that even if women can find pads for sale, they generally can't afford them.
Organizations like the Women's Advisory Council appealed to international relief groups for aid, and literally tons of donated sanitary supplies have poured in from South Africa and the U.K. But Zimbabwe's government, which doesn't acknowledge that there is a crisis, may require the women to pay exorbitant duty fees on the imported goods. Information and Publicity Deputy Minister Brighton Matonga -- who has responded to the situation with such head-in-the-sand gems as "People are creating a crisis that does not exist. It's a lie to seek attention," and "The Zimbabwe government won't sit back and let women suffer. We care about our women" -- suggests that the Women's Advisory Council apply to the health ministry for a duty exemption or get ready to pay up. Which, given the aforementioned poverty crisis, isn't really a viable option for most women.
Khumalo explained to the BBC that "the critical shortage has been ignored as it is taboo to talk about periods in public."
Reusable-pad company Lunapads International has a helpful site with suggestions for how to bypass the duty problem when sending donations to the country (care of the awesome Women of Zimbabwe Arise organization). If you'd like to donate -- whether it's Lunapads products or another kind -- check out their site first. Among their helpful hints: "Write a minimal amount in the 'value' section of the customs form ($5), even if the value is greater," and "Most Zimbabwean women are not familiar with tampons so if possible send pads."
Update: As several great reader letters have pointed out, a lack of sanitary pads is hardly the most urgent health crisis facing Zimbabwe. (Twenty-four percent of the population is estimated to have HIV, for one thing.) And anyway, women survived for thousands of years before the feminine hygiene industry emerged to rescue us from our regular bodily functions; not having manufactured menstrual aids isn't necessarily a catastrophe. However, there are two things I should have noted sooner: Sanitary pads were manufactured in Zimbabwe until 1999, when many companies moved their factories out of the country, so it's understandable that women would miss having the pad option. And though making one's own pads out of cloth is a time-honored and practical solution, many women who have been displaced by government bulldozing of informal dwellings lack the spare cloth for makeshift pads. For those women, donated supplies from countries and companies that can spare them might come as a real relief.