Tamara Magwashu was bullied at school because her family was not rich enough to afford sanitary napkins.
Now 27, she grew up in a poor village in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province and watched her single mother use old rags during her period.
Tamara took at least a week off from school during her period and had to learn how to fold and use the rags, which was very inconvenient.
That scar experience motivated her as an adult.
“I made a choice deep down that I don’t want anyone else to go through what I did,” she told the BBC.
“So I came up with the idea of starting my own company, to eradicate menstrual poverty.”
She now supplies sanitary towels to hundreds of schools in the Eastern Cape.
‘Growing up in a hovel’
Her work has been recognized by her community and she was nominated this year for Forbes Magazine’s 30 under 30 list, which showcases young campaigners and entrepreneurs from around the world.
Describing her upbringing in the East London township of Duncan Village, Tamara says she lived all her life “in a shack – never had windows, never had windows [piped] water”.
She decided to take a part-time job after school to try to make ends meet for her family – and to help out when she had her period.
“I started working whenever I could around my studies so that I could buy pads, because those pads were very uncomfortable for me.”
Tamara also says that as a teenager she found it very difficult to understand why she got period pains because there was very little education about menstruation.
She was not alone in this battle.
Poverty NGO The Borgen Project estimates that seven million South African girls cannot afford to buy sanitary products.
Around the world, the World Bank says that at least 500 million women and girls do not have access to the services they need during their period.
UN Women estimates that 1.25 billion women and girls worldwide do not have a safe private toilet to go to.
And that also applies to Tamara and her family. They share a public toilet with about 50 others in her township.
Despite South Africa being one of the richest countries on the continent, the young businesswoman thinks it only really “shines from the outside”.
When she went to university in Johannesburg to study public relations, Tamara managed to save some money from her student loan and income from her side jobs to start her own business, aiming to change things for women and men. girls in her community.
She had to be self-sufficient because she had tried to get a business loan, but no one wanted to take a risk with her because she had no assets under her name.
She eventually launched the company in 2021 with the aim of selling menstrual products at an affordable price for underprivileged women.
She named it Azosule, which means “to wipe every tear from their eyes” in the South African Xhosa language.
It also has a charity arm, which uses a portion of its profits. Tamara created the “She Needs You” campaign where she goes to rural schools to deliver free sanitary towels.
The Borgen project estimates that about 30% of girls there do not attend school during their period because they do not have access to sanitary products.
‘It was like Christmas’
Her former high school principal takes pride in her work.
“She helped the girls so much. She brought so many pads that the girls have enough for six months – it was like Christmas for them,” says Thazea Mnyaka.
“These girls come from underprivileged backgrounds where their only meals can come from school. How can they buy sanitary products?”
In addition, Tamara does local toad drives on the street, where she distributes her products in marginalized communities.
Yazini Kuse is a journalist, also from Duncan Village, and she was the first reporter to cover what Tamara was doing.
“I was fascinated by her work. She advocates for the dignity of young girls and the human rights of women, because we don’t have much.
“She’s working to fix that,” she told the BBC.
“Despite being in that situation of poverty herself, she tries to improve the lives of others, which is amazing – she is a walking testimony to the importance of this.”
There are others in the country working on the same problem.
Nokuzola Ndwandwe is a Durban campaigner who successfully secured a sales tax on tampons scrapped in South Africa and is working on a bill th
at will target menstrual hygiene.
The Menstrual Health Rights Bill is supported by a collective of 31 organizations campaigning for free menstrual products and wanting the South African government to recognize menstrual health as a human rights issue.
She says, “We wanted [the tax] deleted on products because they are expensive. We are in talks with key members of the state and UN women.
“It’s important that we empower young women to take action. Women and girls in rural areas like Tamara’s must continue to raise their voices and come forward.”
Tamara is ambitious and wants to expand her work to other African countries in the long term. She also wants men to become aware of the importance of breaking taboos.
“Periodic poverty isn’t a women’s problem, it’s a social problem,” she says, “and until we can understand that, we’re not going to make progress.”