In September 2015, Livity Africa’s Project Demo initiative put out a call, asking young people which issues they would like Parliament to address. Journalist Pontsho Pilane, then a student at Wits University, with her #FreeToBleed campaign, emerged as the clear winner.
Pontsho petitioned Parliament for free sanitary pads for all in November last year.
Since the campaign launched nearly two years ago, Pontsho has found that there appears to be some political willingness to provide free pads, with KwaZulu-Natal having recently started providing free pads in poorer schools. But she also discovered that changing and implementing government policy is not easy.
We caught up with her to find out how the campaign is going.
(Check out our timeline of the campaign here.)
- Give us an update on the #FreeToBleed campaign.
The pads campaign continues to grow momentum with the public, although there has not been much feedback from government officials. Through my work as a journalist, I have been able to cover this issue in mainstream news, having published a two-page spread in the Mail and Guardian’s health section. Through that, we were able to secure donations for a school in KZN.
- Have you been in communication with (Minister of Women) Susan Shabangu’s office, or any other member of government, since your appearance in Parliament and what have the discussions been about?
I have received an invitation to attend National Consultative Indaba on Sanitary Dignity Policy Framework organised by Minister Susan Shabangu. We are yet to attend and will have to wait for the session to give any feedback.
- Have you had any feedback from any political parties/people in power about taking your cause forward?
Except for the MPs I presented to and the feedback they gave me after the session, there has been no feedback.
- Would you describe your experience of petitioning Parliament as positive/negative, and why?
Overall it has been a positive experience, especially seeing how this issue is one that resonates with so many South Africans. It has been negative because I realised through going to Parliament that there is a lack of political will from many of our MPs and leaders. However, I think it is a good thing that people are helping me keep them accountable and this also makes them realise that this issue is big and important enough for them to take seriously.
- What is the next step for the campaign?
For now, I think attending the Indaba is vital and only then will the next step be determined. I think that pressurising government will continue in different ways – locally and nationally. Whether it is tweeting the relevant departments or continuously writing about the issue, we need to keep it in our frame of mind. As we speak, I am currently in the US to learn more about how journalism can be used to impact governments and implement change. We will also find ways of achieving free pads and justice for all people who menstruate. (I say free sanitary pads for people who menstruate, instead of girls and women, because I don’t want to erase trans women and non-binary people who are struggling with this as well.)
- Now that the petition has been handed over to Parliament, can people still get involved and, if so, how can they help?
People should not underestimate their collective and individual power. When people ask me how they can help, I always say they must form pads stokvels. When you are meeting with your book club, friends at a braai, your church cell group or any other social gathering, make this the “entrance fee”. Collect these for three to six months and you will have a substantial amount of pads to donate to a school, family or NGO operating in your community. I think this is how we can help until we have free pads for all. And unlike donating to big organisations, you will be changing the lives of people in your world.
- Are we any closer to having free sanitary supplies in SA?
I think we are closer to free sanitary pads in SA than we have ever been in the history of this country. It may not happen this year, or next year but we are well on our way. I sometimes get weary and think it is not possible but I am encouraged by the fact that there are enough South Africans who care about this for it not to happen.
For more information on how government has responded to Pontsho’s efforts, read this.
Project Demo finds the voices of young people in South Africa, amplifies their stories and turns their cause for change into a reality. Tell them your issue. They’ll take it on and campaign with you.