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Board members of Agape Flows, a nonprofit that supplies impoverished girls with feminine hygiene products, buy packs of Kotex pads in a South African supermarket.
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Photo by Audrey Jackson

Shame stops as Agape Flows

Southern Africa Bible College student advocates for impoverished girls’ education by providing free menstrual products.

BENONI, South Africa — Nearly 700 girls, ranging in age from 13 to 18, waited outside the Chief Albert Luthuli Secondary School in anticipation of an unconventional gift:

A pack of sanitary pads. 

Volunteers with Agape Flows — all students of Southern Africa Bible College, which is associated with Churches of Christ — stood on chairs to get the girls’ attention for a brief lesson on women’s health. 

Khensani Phillip Nyoka, acting department head of life orientation at Chief Albert Luthuli Secondary School, speaks from a plastic chair to an assembly of about 700 girls.

Khensani Phillip Nyoka, acting department head of life orientation at Chief Albert Luthuli Secondary School, speaks from a plastic chair to an assembly of about 700 girls.

Lebohang Sithole, coordinator for the women-led nonprofit, expressed wonder at the size of the gathering.

Sithole, 20, never imagined an idea in June would lead to handing out hundreds of packets of feminine hygiene products to such a large student body by mid-September. 

Neither did Pinkie Makua, founder of Agape Flows.

Makua’s first career choice didn’t involve attending Southern Africa Bible College, about 25 miles east of Johannesburg, or working in ministry. Neither did the second or third, for that matter. Most jobs she was interested in focused on social issues in her country. 

All her choices foreshadowed the faith-based nonprofit she’d start out of her dorm room to help impoverished girls.

Pure religion

Despite juggling a full class schedule and working toward her Bible degree, Makua, 30, filed paperwork for nongovernmental organization status and transformed an empty dorm room into a product storage site.

Her nonprofit provides impoverished girls with menstrual products so they won’t miss school due to limited access to necessary hygienic items — an unconventional ministry, but a “fulfillment of pure religion,” according to the Tafelkop Church of Christ member, who referenced James 1:27:

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

Basetsana Mbungela, a second-year student and deputy chairwoman of Agape Flows, intimately understands the education struggles faced by impoverished girls in South Africa. 

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

While she never skipped school because of her menstrual cycle, the Meadowlands Church of Christ member recalled the embarrassment she faced due to a lack of products.

“I went to school, and I would smell because sometimes I would go without even putting anything on,” said Mbungela, 23. “Luckily, we used to wear black tunics, but when I stood up sometimes the chair would be red, and I would have to wipe the seat clean with my tunic.”

It’s this shame Agape Flows seeks to eradicate, with the nonprofit proclaiming the slogan, “Their dignity is our concern.” As the vision for the ministry formed, other students at the college volunteered. 

Even the men at Southern Africa Bible College wanted to be involved.

“It was interesting when we started because the guys were rallying behind us,” Makua said. “They were buying pads. They even wanted to know where we are going and when we are going. They are a part of us, not just supporting but wanting to do everything.”

Period poverty

The girls used newspapers for tampons and pads at school before discarding them in the trash — that memory stays with Mervin Thato. 

Thato, who previously worked with a similar nonprofit in Pretoria, South Africa, volunteers with Agape Flows when he’s not attending classes or working as a recruiter for the Bible college. 

“It hit me then, ‘Why are these things being so expensive for these children?’” Thato said. “It’s programs like the Dignity Hamper Project or Agape Flows and many others out there that are making a difference.”

‘Why are these things being so expensive for these children?’

“Period poverty” — a term used to describe how low-income women and girls struggle to afford menstrual products — can affect consistent education as girls skipping school due to menstruation fall behind. 

A UNESCO study found that in sub-Saharan Africa, one in 10 girls have missed school while menstruating, which can range from two to seven days per month and result in missing up to 20 percent of the academic year. 

Girls who are unable to afford feminine hygiene products may turn to alternative means of access by dating older men who can pay for the products they need, leaving them susceptible to gender-based violence.

“Oftentimes when a child doesn’t come to school for seven days, and you go find out what went wrong, it’s because they can’t afford to buy pads.”

“We find most of the kids, especially here at my school, are involved with older men,” said Khensani Phillip Nyoka, the acting department head of life orientation at Chief Albert Luthuli Secondary School. “Why? It’s because older men can provide. Whereas at home, they can find nothing.

“Oftentimes when a child doesn’t come to school for seven days,” she added, “and you go find out what went wrong, it’s because they can’t afford to buy pads.”

Stigma and support

Access to products isn’t the only challenge. 

Sexual and reproductive health carries heavy stigmas in South Africa, making it challenging to educate both older and younger generations. 

In popular supermarkets, pads line the shelves in abundance, while tampons — an insertable product that is taboo in more conservative communities — are offered in small supply. Knowledge of reusable menstrual cups is nearly nonexistent.

Makua dealt with similar education challenges in 2012 while working in pre- and post-counseling for HIV-positive patients.

“We would go to clinics, schools, and teach people how to use condoms, how to store them, how to dispose of them properly,” Makua recalled. “I think you have to be open to discuss anything with everyone. Especially teenagers.”

Board members of Agape Flows hope to provide comprehensive sex education in the future so girls are also informed about pregnancy prevention, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual assault protocols.  

Lebohang Sithole and members of Agape Flows lean on a reflective counter.

Lebohang Sithole and members of Agape Flows lean on a reflective counter.

But while society imposes stigmas, the ministry has found support among Churches of Christ. 

Many South African congregations and individuals donated menstrual products, while others donated money. Members of the Memorial Church of Christ in Houston donated $1,500.

“It was the women of Memorial who really stepped up to support Agape Flows,” said Kirk Eason, a member of the Texas church and director of U.S. development for Southern Africa Bible College. “Every donation I received was from a woman.”

‘They … can see Christ’

Agape Flows partially used that money to buy a commercial pallet of feminine hygiene products to distribute among the girls at Chief Albert Luthuli Secondary School. 

The girls crowded around volunteers with Agape Flows in no particular order, hands outstretched for a precious pack of the sanitary pads. A few sneaked up to the boxes of product and tucked extra packets in their school uniform jackets. 

Makua, Mbungela, Sithole and Thato pressed the products into the impatient hands until every girl in the crowd had received a set of pads. 

A few students exchanged their gratitude and asked for photos with the volunteers. 

The donation of sanitary pads wasn’t just benevolence. Makua said she believes it’s a form of evangelism. 

“It doesn’t matter if you tell them about salvation each and every day, quote Scriptures,” Makua said. “You need to show them that you care so that they also can see Christ in you by your actions.”

 

Filed under: Agape Flows Christian nonprofits Churches of Christ in South Africa Culture Features feminine hygiene International News Partners People Southern Africa Bible College Top Stories women's health

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