Tamara Magwashu was bullied at school as her family was not rich enough to afford sanitary pads.
Now 27, she grew up in a poor township in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province and watched her single mother use old rags during menstruation.
Tamara would take at least a week off school while she was on her period, and had to learn how to fold and use the rags, which were very uncomfortable.
That scarring experience has motivated her as an adult.
“I made a choice deep within me that I didn’t want anyone else to go through what I did,” she tells the BBC.
“So I had the idea to create my own company, to eradicate period poverty.”
She now delivers sanitary pads to hundreds of schools in the Eastern Cape.
‘Grew up in a shack’
Her work has been recognised by her community and she was nominated for this year’s Forbes magazine 30 under 30 list, which showcases young campaigners and entrepreneurs from around the world.
Describing her upbringing in the township of Duncan Village in the city of East London, Tamara says she has lived her entire life “in a shack – never had any windows, never had any [piped] water”.
She decided to get part-time jobs after school to try and make ends meet for her family – and to help when she was on her period.
“I started to work whenever I could around my studies so that I could buy sanitary pads because for me those rags were very uncomfortable.”
Tamara also says that as a teenager she found it very difficult to understand why she was getting period pains, because there was very little education about menstruation.
She was not alone in this struggle.
Anti-poverty NGO The Borgen Project estimates that seven million South African girls cannot afford to buy sanitary products.
Across the globe, the World Bank says that at least 500 million women and girls lack access to the facilities they need during their periods.
UN Women reckons that 1.25 billion women and girls worldwide have no safe, private toilet to go to.
And that is the case for Tamara and her family. They share a public toilet with around 50 others in her township.
Despite South Africa being one of the wealthiest 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 start saving some money from her student loan as well as income from her part-time jobs in order to start her own business, with a view to changing things for women and girls in her community.
She had to be self-sufficient as she had tried to get a business loan but no-one would take a risk on her as she did not have any assets to her name.
She eventually launched the business in 2021 with the aim of selling period products at an affordable price for disadvantaged women.
She called it Azosule, which means “to wipe away every tear from their eyes” in South Africa’s Xhosa language.
It also has a charitable arm, using a portion of its profits. Tamara created the “She needs you” campaign where she goes into schools in rural areas to deliver pads for free.
The Borgen Project estimates around 30% of girls do not attend school there while they are on their period because they do not have access to sanitary products.
‘It was like Christmas’
Her former secondary school headteacher is proud of her work.
“She has helped the girls so much. She has brought so many pads that the girls have enough for six months – it was like Christmas for them,” Thazea Mnyaka says.
“These girls come from disadvantaged backgrounds where their only meals can come from school, how can they buy sanitary products?”
In addition, Tamara does local pad drives on the street, where she hands out her products in marginalised communities.
Yazini Kuse is a journalist, also from Duncan Village, and she was the first reporter to cover what Tamara was doing.
“I was captivated by her work. She’s advocating for the dignity of young girls and women’s human rights because we don’t have much.
“She’s working towards restoring that,” she tells the BBC.
“Despite being in that situation of poverty herself, she’s trying to improve the lives of others, which is amazing – she’s a walking testimony of the importance of this.”
There are others in the country working on the same issue.
Nokuzola Ndwandwe is a campaigner from Durban who successfully got a sales tax on tampons scrapped in South Africa, and is working to get a bill passed that focuses on menstrual hygiene.
The Menstrual Health Rights Bill is backed by a collective of 31 organisations which are campaigning for free period products and want the South African government to recognise menstrual health as a human rights issue.
She says: “We wanted [the tax] scrapped on products because they’re expensive. We are in discussions 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 should continue to raise their voices and come forward.”
Tamara is ambitious and wants to eventually expand her work to other African countries. She also wants men to be aware of the importance of breaking down taboos.
“Period poverty is not a women’s issue, it’s a societal issue,” she says, “and until we can understand that we are not going to move forward.”