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The pain of using cloths as sanitary pads

by: Andisiwe Ntoni - 29 August 2016

Zandile Lali* was 13 years old when she had her first period during class in primary school. She was scared and didn’t know what to do. Like many other girls, she confided in her mother when she got home. But she didn’t get pads or tampons, like many other girls her age. She had to use cloth.


Pads_August 2016_©oneleliwani-1Five years later, I meet up with her at her home – a veza in Khayelitsha, which is one big room divided by worn out couches, an old room divider, and a broken wardrobe. Zandile says it’s tough for her and her family with no breadwinner. “I have a single mom who’s unemployed and takes care of four children and two grandchildren. So sanitary pads are too expensive for me,” she says.

Zandile’s menstrual cycle lasts between five and seven days, so her mother has to make sure to find enough cloths and cut them into small rectangles. She uses these as a substitute for pads. Her mom says she uses old t-shirts and any small cloth that is made of cotton so it can keep the blood in place. “I always wash the cloths first. Then I cut, fold and put them away in a box way before her period starts,” says her mother.

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Zandile wears the stacked cloths in the morning when she goes to school, and only changes them when she gets back home. “I throw away each stack I’ve used in a bin, and fold a new batch nicely and put it in place. I find it difficult to wash them, even if it’s my own blood. Also our yard is an open yard so I’m embarrassed that the neighbours will see that I’m using these cloths as sanitary pads.”

There was a time when Zandile couldn’t write one of her exams, and had to stay at home because her flow was too heavy. She had to explain her situation to her teacher, who happened to be male, the next day at school. “I was shy and really embarrassed to tell him the real reason I couldn’t come to school. But I had to, and surprisingly he understood and let me write the exam I had missed,” she says.

Zandile says she has never bought pads, and has only ever experienced using them when she got them for free at promotions. “I would like to use them, but they cost a lot of money so that’s why I use the cloths.”

*Not her real name

Image by Onele Liwani