This interview is with key advocate Isabella Akaliza on the campaign to #FreeThePeriod.
in November 2019, the government of Rwanda announced a removal of period taxes, which have been previously 18%, Sanitary pads were added to a list of goods that are VAT exempted in a bid to ease their affordability.
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We started FreeThePeriod in August, 2019.
Our motivation came from reading the SHEInnovates statistics on how, according to their SHE28 campaign, 18% of girls and women in Rwanda missed out on school and work in 2018 because they could not afford to buy menstrual pads. These absences are a potential GDP loss of $215 per woman every year – a total of $115 million annually in Rwanda.
These statistics shocked us into action. Period poverty is a poorly researched issue, mostly due to the stigma related to it. A lot of us did not know just how deeply affected our country was by the issue, so these statistics birthed our movement.
The campaign aims to break the stigma around menstruation and change national policy through education and behaviour change with initiatives like hosting ‘Twitter Challenges’ where people pledge to donate period products, tag their followers and challenge them to donate as well. Social media challenges like these help us create nationally trending hashtags, which increases exposure and visibility.
While stigma plays a huge part, it is largely an institutional issue, tied up with economic disenfranchisement as well as the continued disregard for women’s bodies. In regards to lobbying for tax exemptions, we reached out to policymakers to explain what the issue was and why we believed tax exemptions was one of the solutions.
The most effective strategy was mobilising members of the general public through social media advocacy, because they then influenced policymakers. We’ve engaged the public through traditional media as well. We were invited to popular debate forums like ‘The Square’ and CNBC Africa's ‘Power Lunch’ to increase awareness on why tax exemptions could be beneficial in ending period poverty.
We would advocate for more eco-friendly solutions to ending periodpoverty.
Social media is a very useful tool. Use it to build a community, to spread awareness, and to engage with people.
However, do not rely too heavily on social media activism because there is a digital divide, and it can also have generational limitations. Reach as many people as you can, using as many means as possible.
Remain a loosely organised, grassroots movement for as long as you can.