A study shows that young girls from poor families miss at least five days of school every month because they don’t have the luxury of sanitary pads when menstruating. During this period, the girls find themselves helpless and desperate. Old strips of clothing, socks, cotton wool, tissue paper, pages torn from schoolbooks and pieces of sponge torn from mattresses are used as sanitary towels. In the most rural of areas, even cow dung is as option.

    Thabo Shole-Mashao, founder and chairperson of Thusa A Girl Child says this natural ordeal is a saddening situation for girls coming from poor families and can lead to infection and low self-esteem.

    Thusa A Girl Child (Thusa is the Tswana/Sotho/Pedi and Venda word for Help) is an initiative developed by the Pfuna Project to give support to girls from resource-poor communities and help them reclaim a measure of dignity that poverty too often conspires to deny them.

    A girl child growing up in a developing country is faced with many harsh challenges; she could fall through the trap door of poor nutrition, lack of education, prostitution and vulnerability to early pregnancy.

    Shole-Mashoa, a Political Editor at Kaya FM says the concept was born when he was in the United States for academic purposes and he met an African-American lady who spoke to him about how young girls in her less privileged American community were faced with the challenge of female sanitation.

    This got him thinking that if this was a challenge for menstruating Black Americans who were in a slightly better economic situation than South Africans, then the challenge would be prevalent for girls from poor communities in rural and township schools.

    “I wanted to do something and the only way to do it was to start an effective and sustainable structure that would address these challenges in longevity. On my return, I banded together with a few friends, we set up this structure.”

    Thusa A Girl Child sources donations from government, corporate and individual sponsors to buy sanitary pads which are distributed at schools in under privileged communities. 

    He says when a young ‘black’ girl is menstruating and she can’t afford to buy sanitary pads, she often resorts to unhygienic tools such as tissue paper and newspaper to help herself and this adds to her low self-esteem.

    It’s a fact that the most vulnerable person in our society is a young black girl.  During her menstrual period she might feel it’s a curse to be a poor young girl - we just want her to know that she’s not alone during her ordeal; we’re there to help and give back her dignity.

    During distribution, Shole-Mashao says they give each girl a box valued at R19 which contains 20 sanitary pads. They also give the girls a health talk through what they call ‘Just Us’ sessions where a health practitioner gives them one-on-one sessions on sex, reproductive issues and also teaches them about personal hygiene.

    While their intervention has been highly welcomed as a relief by teachers, learners, government and corporate companies; funding and sponsorship remains a big challenge for the Thusa A Girl initiative which aims to reach over two-million impoverished girls across the country.

    Shole-Mashao says they have raised bursary funds to take the five best performing matric learners to university next year. His vision is to build an exclusive tertiary institution for girls through funding so girls can also enjoy the fruit of democracy as the gender disparity in South Africa is “too scary” and needs to change to be biased to women.

    In her State of the Province Address, Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane pledged to support girls through bursary sponsorship and to donate 44 000 sanitary pads to the Thusa A Girl Child project.

    “We will sustain the strong performance of girl learners in our schools and this year, as alluded to earlier, we provided bursaries to 1 200 top-performing girl learners from no-fee schools to pursue their studies at tertiary level. Over the past year we have provided Dignity Packs to 66 000 girl learners, exceeding our target by 6 000. We aim to increase our reach further in 2012 through Thusa  A Girl Child Dignity Pack - a partnership with the private sector and Kaya FM to encourage Gauteng residents to support girls in need,” she said.

    Mokonyane emphasised that the focus must be to empower women and educate them about their reproductive health, including the prevention of teenage pregnancy and effective family planning. “We will also continue with our project to mentor hundreds of young women to make a success of their lives.”

    A simple thing such as sanitary pads is a simple way to enable a girl child to advance her education, which in turn will empower her to lift her family and community out of poverty.