YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Disturbing reports from cash-strapped Zimbabwe indicate that girls and women are resorting to using cow dung as sanitary pads as inflation “hits feminine hygiene products,” according to Africanews.

It’s a report that Richard Savo, head of programs for Catholic Relief Services in Zimbabwe, said, hits home.

“As someone with a young daughter and teenage family members, this makes me sad and angry,” Savo told Crux.

Zimbabwe has known economic hardship, but the war in Ukraine has pushed inflation to painful new levels, and it now stands at over 130 percent.

Savo said women and girls are paying a disproportionate price. In an interview with Crux, he examined the hard economic times for ordinary Zimbabweans, the dangers it has caused to female hygiene and what CRS has been doing to bring respite to desperate people.

The following are excerpts of that conversation.

Crux: What comes to mind when you get this kind of news?

Savo: As someone with a young daughter and teenage family members, this makes me sad and angry. As someone who works in the nonprofit sector, this situation highlights the importance of programs specifically designed to support adolescent girls and young women in situations like this.

For instance, for the past five years, the USAID-funded Pathways project has been helping vulnerable girls with access to sanitary pads. We have seen a marked reduction in the levels of absenteeism from school and a drop in the stigma associated with lack of access to proper feminine hygiene products.

Beyond the immediate access to those products, it is also critical to tailor programs to address economic vulnerability and poverty, which are the root causes of the challenges these young girls face. By providing solutions that empower adolescent girls and young women, and give their caregivers and parents a way to earn income, we can improve the economic outcomes of the households. This way, they will have the buying power to access these basic necessities.

What is the danger for these girls using cow dung as sanitary pads?

Young girls and women should, as a fundamental right, have access to hygiene items like sanitary pads to manage their monthly cycle. This will protect their dignity and their ability to function in society without stigma, trauma, health, and societal risk.

There are many multifaceted dangers adolescent girls and women are exposed to when they do not have access to feminine hygiene products. Some of these dangers include threats to physical health and wellbeing. Lack of access to hygiene products leads adolescent girls and women to use unhygienic materials, which might lead to urinary tract and other infections.

There is also the risk of social stigma and interruptions in school attendance. For the duration of their menstrual period each month, some girl-children cannot attend school. This affects their performance in school and opportunities to do well educationally. This will consequently affect their long-term aspirations and limit their opportunities for career progression or employment options, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Lack of access to feminine hygiene products turns the monthly cycle, which should be a normal human development process, into an unpleasant experience and a source of trauma for young women. This can also have long-term effects on the girl-child in terms of dignity, self-esteem, and confidence in life.

This poor hygiene is obviously a result of excruciating poverty. I understand purchasing power in Zimbabwe has fallen drastically as inflation peaks at 130 percent since war broke out between Russia and Ukraine. What does that mean for ordinary people in terms of their capacity to cope?

Women and children are often the first groups to feel the effects of economic downturns. This is particularly concerning since these same groups are also often the most vulnerable in society. Families are having to make tough choices to meet basic food needs and other essentials. Unfortunately, the burden for menstrual hygiene falls predominantly on women who cannot afford this necessity.

What we are seeing in the communities where we work is that people’s lives are affected in many ways. Families are experiencing limits to their ability to earn money, limiting their access to things like food, education, and health care. In addition to poor rains in parts of Zimbabwe, foodstuff is more expensive in the markets, so families spend a significant percentage of their limited income on food. This leaves minimal funds to cater to health, emergencies and other family needs. It is an untenable situation.

Development partners can help by providing opportunities for economic growth, like entrepreneurship training, or by supporting start-ups.

A recent report by CRS notes that global hunger has skyrocketed largely as a result of the Ukraine war. It cites four African countries as countries of particular concern: Madagascar, Nigeria, South Sudan and Sudan. What should African countries be doing to ease the effects of the crisis and avoid similar stress should similar circumstances present themselves in the future?

It is critical for governments to put in place pro-poor policies, including measures that help the vulnerable and ensure they can keep receiving services. It is also crucial to have robust social protection systems in place so that states prioritize taking care of their citizens. It is vital for state actors and non-state actors like development partners to work together.

The focus should be on giving communities and households the skills, tools, and resources they need to be self-sufficient, self-reliant, and bounce back after tough times.

In the face of rising hardship across the continent, what has CRS been doing or plan to do to bring respite to desperate people?

Countries across Africa are grappling with a multiplicity of shocks. These shocks include the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of lockdowns and supply chain issues on economies, the worst drought we have seen in 40 years in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and the impact of the Ukraine war on wheat and maize imports.

Catholic Relief Services is focused on working with governments and our church partners to provide families and communities with support on multiple fronts. On the one hand, we are providing food assistance and financial support to families and communities in places like Ethiopia and Kenya to reduce the impact of rising food prices. Longer term, CRS is increasing its investment in agricultural development programs that aim to provide farmers with the tools and skills they need to increase productivity in climate-affected areas.

Furthermore, CRS implements initiatives that focus on strengthening households, enhancing family income sources, and improving health to support people and their landscapes so that families can live in dignity and recover from shocks.