Free sanitary pad distribution: Departments of Basic Education, Health, National Treasury, Livity Africa & MG updates

Multi-Party Women’s Caucus

23 November 2016
Chairperson: Ms R Morutoa (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

Several entities had been asked to brief the Women's Caucus on the long-outstanding issue of providing free sanitary towels to those in poor areas. Livity Africa & MG reminded the Committee that the promise of free sanitary towel distribution had first been raised in the 2011 State of the Nation Address by the President, when it was announced that it was to be included in the Ten Point Plan on Health, as it was set out as a specific policy objective. Despite the message that this was recognised as a clear need, there had been no apparent progress on the issue since then. Livity pointed out that the subject of menstruation was regarded as taboo in many cultures and religions that regarded menstruating women as “impure”. It suggested that the Departments of Health, Social Development, Basic Eduction and Women in the Presidency all had a potential role to play in assisting poor women. Livity did not support a suggestion that the money currently use to provide free condoms should be directed instead to the sanitary pad campaign, saying that both projects helped the dignity and health of the population and should be supported, but there were also wider points in that lack of sanitary protection was keeping some girls away from school, and keeping women away from their full potential to earn their livelihood.

National Treasury noted that two proposals had been made; the first to supply free sanitary products to indigent women and the second to scrap VAT on sanitary products. The National Treasury noted that it had briefed the Caucus earlier, pointing out that it was only able to allocate money if presented with a business case and policy and so far none of the potential departments that could assist had presented such a case, and for this reason nothing had been allocated. There was an interdepartmental team, under the aegis of the Department of Women in the Presidency, which was supposed to coordinate the work of different departments and spheres. It had proposed a two phase approach – in the immediate term, to come up with a strategy and in the longer term to supply sanitary products to learners and indigent women, having worked on health standards, production costs, localisation, tax measures, educational outreach and awareness, and having worked also on the public provision of sanitary products, delivery mechanisms and logistics. Apart from the departments mentioned earlier, the inter-departmental team included the Departments of Basic and Higher Education, Small Business Development, Trade and Industry and Home Affairs. Although some other countries were offering similar programmes, the National Treasury noted that they were not completely comparable as they did not have as broad a range of other social programmes. National Treasury confirmed that it had heard the proposal to scrap VAT on sanitary products but noted that VAT was essentially charged in support of other social services. It was looking more broadly at all tax instruments, and doing work on comparable situations elsewhere. One possibility might be to distribute vouchers to indigent women. It felt that SA Bureau of Standards should be part of the inter-departmental team.

The Department of Basic Education noted that it was part of the inter-departmental team, and noted that whilst there were various initiatives the DBE itself did not take the initiative of adopting a policy nationally; instead provincial departments had been given the option of implementing the programme when they wished to. The provinces of Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Gauteng took the initiative of supplying sanitary pads to schools. The DBE had a report from Limpopo, stating that 800 schools were beneficiaries, but the report was silent on the social impact that such interventions had made on the lives of learners.

The Department of Health representative had not prepared a presentation, because she had been told of the meeting only that morning, and although she was able to mention some of the other initiatives taken by the Department of Health, she had no information on the provision of sanitary towels by this department.

Members felt that the presenters did not give the information that was requested, and were disappointed that the departments so far seemed to have failed both the commitment of the President, and the citizens, and that the task team was not providing the required information. They asked how the departments intended to implement the programme, why VAT on sanitary towels could not be scrapped, whether the caps used in Europe and China had been used, whether any money had been allocated to certain initiatives  and when reports were likely to be presented.

Meeting report

Provision of free menstrual hygiene (sanitary towel) products
Livity Africa & Mail and Guardian briefing

Ms Pontsho Pilane, Health Reporter: Livity Africa & MG took the Committee through her presentation. She noted that in 2011, the President had promised to institute a programme to grant free sanitary pads to girls and women in poor communities, as part of the Ten Point Plan on Health and even mentioned that policy objective in his 2011 State of the Nation Address (SONA). This showed that this was clearly an issue that needed attention.

She noted that menstruation debates were often regarded as taboo, and menstruation had many negative cultural attitudes associated with it, including the idea that menstruating women and girls were ‘contaminated’, ‘dirty’ and ‘impure’. In South Africa, some cultures and religious denominations believe that women should not be touched or interacted with during their period.

She said that the Department of Health, Department of Basic Education, Department of Social Development and the Department of Women in the Presidency could all assist poor women. She was in favour of both sanitary pads and condoms being provided, and she objected to an argument that money put in currently to provision of condoms should instead be used for free sanitary pads. Condom programmes initiated for provision of free condoms illustrated that the government cared about its people, and such programmes were valuable in that they reduced HIV/AIDS infections. She believed that the government was also capable of providing sanitary pads for needy women and this was another pro-health issue that stretched beyond just HIV/AIDS. Due to feminine hygiene problems, female learners were often forced to be absent from schools. In order to respond to this issue, the Department of Basic Education should provide free sanitary pads. The Department of Social Development should also provide sanitary pads to poor women in order to support their livelihood at all times.

Ms M Semenya (ANC) welcomed the presentation. It raised relevant issues that Members had been talking about since the 2011 SONA. She felt that the concerned departments should respond on the  issues raised in the presentation or state how far they were towards implementing these issues. She fully agreed that the Department of Social Development (DSD) should join other departments in the provision of sanitary pads. 

Ms J Basson (ANC) noted that the issue of hygiene was a legacy left by the apartheid regime, where people had been oppressed and this led to a wide range of social problems. The communities had to understand that the problems did not start in 1994, despite the fact that the private sector may like to hold out that it was being generous in doing charity work, although many of these companies had been part of the oppressive systems. The private sector should fully support the current government to respond to social issues that the past had created, and should assist in creating communities where there was no repression on the basis of colour. Women now had their rights recognised; in the past they were oppressed merely because they were women. It had been argued also that even with the sales of feminine hygiene products, no VAT should be charged, a system in use in Nicaragua, Nigeria, Kenya and Senegal. She still felt that those in charge in the departments were failing to really ensure that women had full rights.

Ms D Robinson (DA) sought clarity on whether any research was done on sanitation “caps” which were largely used in Europe and China.

Ms G Tseke (ANC) stated that officials in departments who were doing nothing to pursue the issues should be held accountable. She was of the view that a coordinated and integrated structure was needed in order to deliver effectively.

Ms L Zwane (ANC) sought clarity on whether the main reason for nothing happening to date was the allocation of funds to roll out a free sanitary pads programme. There was a directive given to provincial government to fund the programme. A policy was needed in order to implement and fund sanitary pad programme. The Department of Basic Education had an Education Trust, which was connected to a variety of private businesses, and she suggested that the Trust should be asked to come on board to address health issues. She also mentioned that she was aware of an individual woman who was buying sanitary pads for learners and who should be invited to speak to Parliament and have her work recognised in a future SONA.

Ms B Chueu (ANC) agreed with all inputs to date. She noted that it was important to restore the dignity of women. It was also important that all sanitary towels should be manufactured in South Africa.

The Chairperson stated that she had recently been to an SADC meeting in Zimbabwe, where the issue of women’s health was high on the agenda. She agreed with Ms Zwane that private funding was a prerequisite. It was a good thing that a policy was about to be established but a policy could not be implemented without a budget.

National Treasury briefing
Ms Yanga Mputa Chief Director: Tax Policy: National Treasury, noted that the Women’s Caucus had made two proposals: the first, to supply free sanitary products to indigent women and the second, to scrap VAT on sanitary products. The Women’s Caucus requested feedback from National Treasury on its role in developing policy to support these two proposals. She had briefed the Committee on 14 September 2016 on these matters. She reminded Members that National Treasury could allocate money but could not implement a policy. It was expecting the relevant department to furnish it with a business case so that money could be allocated. Since 2011, the office of National Treasury had not received a business case from any department and in the absence of this it could not allocate a budget to a sanitary pads programme.  

Ms Mputa noted that since the last meeting, the interdepartmental team that was working on the Strategy for Sanitary Dignity, under guidance from the Department of Women was established. The team would be mandated to coordinate work of different government departments, different spheres of government, and to engage with key stakeholders. Its work would be based on a two-phase approach. The first phase and immediate focus was designed around the 2011 SONA commitment on public provision of sanitary products for indigent women, learners and students. The medium to long term work was based on an integrated public policy to support sanitary dignity in the broader population, and it would comprise work in different work streams, including:
- public provision of sanitary products to learners, students and indigent women
- setting health standards for sanitary products
- looking into production costs, localisation and tax relief measures
- educational outreach and awareness campaign
- delivery mechanisms and logistics.

Ms Mputa added that the interdepartmental team comprised national Departments of Women, Health, Basic and Higher Education, Social Development, National Treasury, Small Business Development, Home Affairs and Trade and Industry. She noted that some countries like Kenya could not be compared with South Africa in respect of social support, because Kenya did not have social housing and social grants systems.

With regard to the proposal for VAT scrapping, Ms Mputa noted that the National Treasury was looking at all tax instruments to see what it could do, rather than on focussing on one tax instrument. It should be noted that the VAT was collected for the purpose of raising money for social grants and social housing purposes. National Treasury was still doing tax research on certain countries such as Canada and Australia to see how the tax could be scrapped and what more could be done with regard to financing social and health development programmes. South Africa was depending on its own revenue to fund social activities. She pointed out that sanitary issues affected women across the country.

Ms Marle Van Niekerk, Director: Personal Income Tax: National Treasury stated that it was also suggested that vouchers could be distributed to indigent women as a part of implementing the policy. The National Treasury was conscious about the product standards and felt that the SA Bureau of Standards (SABS) should be part of the interdepartmental team.

Ms X Tom (ANC) wanted to focus on the recommendations. The first recommendation was that the Committee should write to the President requesting an update on the 2011 announcement that the Sanitary Pads campaign could start soon. She reminded Ms Pilane that it was the President who started the sanitary pads debate in the 2011 SONA. It was unfortunate that this Committee, after five years, was still discussing whether or not it could be implemented more quickly. It seemed that the fiscus was constrained. An inter-ministerial committee, led by Ms Susan Shabangu, Minister in the Presidency, with Ms Bathabile Dlamini, Minister of Social Development and Ms Angie Motshekga, Minister of Basic Education, was looking at criteria regarding qualifications to supply sanitary products. She asked who was being considered as the supplier.

Ms C Majeke (UDM) sought clarity from National Treasury whether there was any budget allocated to sanitary pads since the 2011 SONA.

Ms Semenya said that the Annual Performance Plan (APP) should be established and should focus on addressing women’s health issues. She asked how much was allocated to women's poverty-alleviation programmes, and said that this should be something included in the performance plans for Director-Generals. There was, in her view, no point in speaking to people unless they were decision makers, for Members needed to get to someone who had the power to take decisions.

Department of Basic Education briefing
Ms Dululu Hlatshaneni, Deputy Director: Gender Equality, Department of Basic Education, noted that many of her points were similar to those already made by National Treasury. The Department of Basic Education (DBE) was part of the interdepartmental team that was set up by the Department of Women in the Presidency. The DBE understood that there were various initiatives that took place after the President made that call; but the DBE did not take initiative of adopting a national policy to implement the call, as a strategic intervention of the DBE. Instead, the various provincial departments were requested to implement the sanitary programme when they wished to do that. Some provinces, namely, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Gauteng took the initiative of supplying sanitary pads to schools. The DBE had a report from Limpopo stating that 800 schools were beneficiaries, but the report was silent on the social impact that such interventions had made on the lives of learners.

Department of Health briefing
Ms D Mazibuko, Director: Child, Youth and School Health Programme, Department of Health apologised for not preparing a formal presentation. She noted that she had only been advised that she would need to brief the Committee this morning.

The Chairperson sought clarity on who advised her that morning that she would be briefing the Committee.

Ms Mazibuko responded that she received an instruction that morning from “her boss” and her flight was booked that morning.

The Chairperson sought clarity on whether her boss was a male or female.

Ms Mazibuko responded that the invitation was sent to another Chief Directorate the day before the meeting. The Chief Directorate had pointed out that it was not dealing with adolescent and youth issues and instead it was her own Chief Directorate who dealt with these matters.

The Chairperson stated that she received a communication advising her that the Department of Health (DoH) could not divulge everything to the Committee and Members could see what was happening, that effectively it was being obstructive about briefing the Committee.

Ms Mazibuko said that the Department of Health was part of the interdepartmental team and it had contributed to the development of a policy. It was visiting schools to assess the barriers that learners from grades 1 to 4 faced. The DoH was also providing a vaccine “against cancer”. This programme  was launched in 2014 and the Department had reached about more than a million learners.


Ms Tseki said that this presentation did not give the information that was requested. The Committee needed information on the provision of sanitary pads. It was most unfortunate that the President had given directives, but departments were failing not only him but also the citizens of the country. The issue of a gender focal point was a problem. Members also had failed in their responsibilities since they should have followed up also. The task team had been established but it was not providing required information.

Ms Mazibuko responded that the Department of Health was not providing any sanitary pads to learners. This was done through the integrated school programme.

Ms Majeke sought clarity from National Treasury whether, after 2011, it had allocated any budget at all  to the sanitary pad programme. She sought clarity from the DBE whether it had engaged at all with community based organisations, in terms of considering how the programme might be outsourced.

Ms Semenya asked whether there were gender focal point managers in each department who were supposed to streamline the programme.

Ms Tseki reiterated that neither the Department of Health nor the DBE had provided what they had been requested.

Ms Pilane responded that there were mainstream sanitary caps that were named “empower” and which were manufactured locally. They had been distributed to women in Kwazulu Natal and women had reported being happy with the product. However, it was not advisable that these be used where they could not be cleaned with soap, warm water and salt, for otherwise they could cause urinary infections.

The Chairperson stated that the issue of the gender focal point had been discussed for fifteen years and it was high time that the departments actually told the Caucus what was being planned. This was an issue to do with all poor women, not just girls. She noted that all departments were expected to report fully on progress and tax issues needed further discussion.

The meeting was adjourned.


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