Tampons for Africa
I have a soft spot for Woman’s Hour. I like the way it squeezes in wonderfully subversive feminist reports next to those drearily wholesome recipes for tuna pasta bake. And I have a particularly soft spot for it at the moment because one of the current producers is the inestimable Victoria Brignell. Victoria did Classics at Cambridge a few years ago, was clever and sparky, moved on to the BBC – and happens to be quadraplegic.
But, uncharacteristically, on Monday they missed a trick with a pious little item on sanitary protection in Kenya.
It was indeed tear-jerking stuff. There were interviews with young girls who missed school, even dropped out of education entirely, because they didn’t have pads. They couldn’t bear, they said, to go to school with blood on their clothes. So there’s a campaign – backed by NGOs and Kenyan women MPs -- to get sanpro (as the trade calls it) given out free in schools, and to get the world’s women to donate their surplus.
To start with, it all sounded pretty compelling. But soon it was clear that a lot of questions were going to remain unanswered. What, for example, did the women of Kenya do before the prospect of Western sanpro was trailed before them? There were a few dark references to dung and lack of hygiene. And my mind raced to the idea of menstrual exclusion and the wonderful prospect of women all menstruating in the menstrual hut together, doing their school work and having a great time – until some well-meaning anthropologist came and told them they shouldn’t buy into these ideas of pollution. Who knows?
In this case it was hard to resist the conclusion that they might once have had some reasonably effective local method of dealing with the bleeding. But now these poor girls were sitting there worrying about making a mess on their skirts – and waiting for a supply of commercial pads that would never quite meet the demand.
More to the point -- who is actually making this sanpro for Kenya? Was the campaign looking to build local, and locally owned, pad factories? Or to develop hygienic, reusable and eco-friendly methods? No. the idea seemed to be that we should airlift in the products of the great multi-national companies, who already make a mint out of menstruating first-world women.
A quick trawl of the web shows that the business world has already spotted the African continent as a burgeoning market for top price sanpro. It recognizes that there is a certain difficulty in “enlarging the consumer base” and that “lower income groups are less likely to purchase sanitary protection” (a market research triumph, for sure). But then, if you can get us to buy it and donate, you’ve made the profit anyway.
The case of Zimbabwe is horribly instructive, There is a pad crisis there too. Why? Because Johnson and Johnson moved out of the country in 1999 when the economic going got rough and they have been forced to import from South Africa.
I thought that we had learned from the “baby formula for Africa” debacle. But, even if on a smaller scale, this looks like much the same story.