“Let’s have free pads as South Africa. If you can have free condoms why don’t you have free pads?” said Brian Matyila, chairperson of Citizens ZA Movement.

Matyila and colleagues from Citizens ZA Movement rallied outside Pick ‘n Pay in Johannesburg at Melville Campus Square encouraging shoppers to go and buy pads and contribute to the One Million Pads drive they were supporting.

Matyila added that one of the solutions to the problem would be to remove stigmas around menstruation, and for men, especially, to start having conversations about how they need to be more involved in helping.

“It’s important for men to start teaching each other about menstrual cycles, about the effects that come with lack of pads because we find that men are the ones that drive the stigma.

“We thought let’s do something as men to honour our women on [University of Johannesburg] campus. But once we started with that process we realised it’s a bigger problem. It goes beyond UJ,” Matyila said.

Khanyi Zungu, an attorney who works in several outreach programmes, said that some impoverished girls cannot afford pads and are sometimes forced to choose between spending money on either food or pads.

“We’re very privileged and it’s something we take for granted. If you go to some of these households you’re astonished because girls say they’re not going to school because they don’t have pads. They have to choose between food and pads,” Zungu said.

Reneilwe Maleka, who was shopping together with Zungu for pads to donate, said the first step to solving the issue would be for pads not to be taxed.

“Let’s start by having less tax on it because we already know what it does to a young girl. We’re taxing sanitary towels which are a basic need; it impacts on your human dignity,” she said.

“We have the ministry of sanitation and people in education. It touches on all of them and they’re not doing anything,” she added.

By 9:30am, pads were sold out in many Johannesburg stores.

Zungu and Malika went to five different stores in order to reach their target of 100 pads and succeeded.

If they can do it, why can’t we do it?

Why do girls need sanitary pads to stay in school?

Nancy Muller: You start to see a real difference in rates of school attendance for boys and girls as they move from primary school to secondary school. Rates for girls can be 8 to 10 percent lower than for boys. There are a lot of reasons for this. If there’s a need for help in the home, for example, often a girl may be held back.

Now, if a girl doesn’t have access to sanitary pads or a safe and clean place at school to change them, that becomes another reason to keep her home. She starts missing a few days every month, she falls behind, and she may eventually drop out. In fact, some small studies in Ghana and Uganda found that if you provide a girl with underwear and sanitary pads, her chances of staying in school are 30 to 50 percent higher.

Keeping girls in school is important to health and development—not only for the girls but for their communities and countries. When girls stay in school, they are less likely to get HIV infection, wages go up, teenage pregnancy rates go down, and the children they have are healthier. You educate a girl and you change the world.

So, how do we make sanitary pads more widely available?

Nancy Muller: There are challenges, and one of the biggest is the ongoing cost. Another is that most sanitary pads are disposable. In countries that don’t have a good sanitation or waste disposal system, that can be big problem.

At PATH, we’re exploring potential solutions that are appropriate and affordable. For example, we’ve been looking at ways to make a hybrid reusable pad less expensive, easier to wash, and quicker to dry. Maybe we could even package those with a booklet so girls could learn what’s happening when they start to menstruate.

And another option that I’m excited about right now is the menstrual cup. These cups catch blood and can last for a decade. And they can be used for 10 to 12 hours at a stretch—a full school day. That could mean so much added potential for keeping girls in school.