They live about 300 kilometres apart—one at Lusako in Karonga North West, and the other at Kamphenda in Rumphi West—yet each morning as they go to their schools, they are confronted by similar problems.
First, let us get to Karonga. As you move around her school, you are greeted by lamps of fecal matter, where many learners have found solace in shrubs and under some bluegum and mango trees. They are tired of scrambling for pit latrines.
There are just eight pit latrines against a population of 1 250 learners, out of which 662 are girls.
The 12 qualified teachers—including six auxiliaries—also scramble for the same, un-roofed, and dirty and death-trap structures they call toilets. They seem as if they are never cleaned.
The younger ones, who, for fear would fall into the toilet, and because of how busy the toilets get, help themselves under blue gum tress and some shrubs around the school. A walk around confirms this.
But this is not just the problem confronting 13-year-old Emily Mwamsamale, a Standard Seven learner at Lusako Primary school, located just 200 metres off the M1 on the Karonga-Songwe stretch.
On the left of the pit latrines, is a shabby, dirty looking grass-thatched room girls use as a menstrual hygiene management room.
It is not roofed, the floor is muddy and anyone moving around is able to see what happens inside. There is no privacy, dignity cannot be brought into the equation.
That is the main problem for Emily. At 13, she says society seems to have neglected the girl child, and with such a situation, many of them when they are menstruating opt to keep their dignity by staying at home.
“You come from home, hoping for the better, but that’s what not you find. Do you see those classrooms?” poses Emily, pointing at some classrooms, leaving everyone wondering how the classroom and the sanitary room are connected.
“Those classrooms do not have desks, and if you start your periods in those rooms, you feel the shame, and yet when you have to clean yourselves, you go into that grass shack where everybody can see you.”
Flanked by her matron Serah Vundo, Emily says while most violent issues are being addressed, lack of basic sanitary facilities is also another form of violence, as it exposes girls to shame, ridicule and torture.
She continues: “After being humiliated in class and this thing we call a sanitary facility, then we have to scramble for just four toilets, yet we are about 662 girls here. That is why many girls prefer to stay home.”
The school also does not have urinary places—meaning they have to scramble for the available toilets or if they are all filled, then they have to find places to relieve themselves just as the young ones do under shrubs and blue gum trees.
Vundo, who is also Mwenitete Zone commissioner on ending violence against the girl child, is at a loss of words.
“We are all concerned and this forces girls to stop attending classes due to lack of special rooms where they can clean up themselves whenever they are in their menstrual period,” she says.
According to Vundo, they have cried for too long, and will keep on doing so until help comes to the school.
“As a woman myself, it is very difficult for a girl to come to school and sit on the floor, and when she is experiencing her monthly period, be in that state and visit this shack. I am very worried because, even at the moment, we do not have sanitary pads,” adds Vundo.
The school’s deputy head teacher Bester Harawa says the money normally used for buying the sanitary pads comes from the Primary School Improvement Programme (Psip), which in most cases is not enough, and the teachers do what they can manage.
Mwenitete Zone primary education adviser Robson Kondowe admits the challenges, stating that with the recommended toilet-to-learner ration of 1:10 for girls and 1:25 for boys, the school is in great need.
Is there anything being done? He says with the school having a shortage of about 50 toilets for boys and as many for girls, they are looking at how some school funds can be used to salvage the situation.
He says: “I have been here for a few months, but I have already drawn a list of schools that have a short fall of infrastructure, including toilets. I have written a report to the director.
“But since schools are funded with school improvement grants (SIGs), I am encouraging head teachers to also plan for building more toilets and sanitary rooms. Apart from donations, there is also SIG that schools can utilise to build such rooms.”
Yet at Kamphenda Community Day Secondary School in Rumphi West, Glory Bulawula, a Form Three Student aged 18, shares similar challenges.
“We only have two toilets for girls, and two for boys. There is no special hygiene room for girls, no bathroom or anything,” he says.
Bulawula says many girls shun classes during menstruation “because they do not want to be at a place where they do not feel safe”.
She adds: “This affects us a lot because if someone is undergoing menstruation, and if it starts while at school, there is no remedy. The girls have to walk long distances to get home to clean up.
“That is an inconvenience, and what girls do is simply stay home. While they do that, others are learning, which means they are losing out. We need safe rooms right at the school. ”
According to the 2020 Education Statistics report from the Ministry of Education, good infrastructure and proper sanitary facilities are vital tools in attracting learners’ attendance, especially for girls.
“Studies have shown that girls’ education cannot improve if sanitation and sexual and reproductive health basic infrastructure is not included as part of basic requirement for girls’ attendance in school.
“The National Girls Education Strategy highlights that unavailability of change rooms and incinerators in secondary schools is among the challenges affecting girls’ education.”
Sadly, the report shows that there are 34 improved change rooms for girls in Karonga, followed by 13 basic change rooms, and five improved incinerators.
On toilets, the report shows that the whole Karonga has just 14 flush toilets for girls, and 12 for boys that are in use. It has 807 for girls 697 for boys improved pit latrines in use, and another 181 and 163 for girls and boys respectively that are basic.
At national level, there are 2884 and 2067 water closets for girls and boys respectively, with 4 803 and 4 153 pit latrines with drop holes in that order.
A 2020 study by Mzuzu University on “Do sanitation facilities in primary and secondary schools address Menstrual Hygiene needs? A study from Mzuzu City, Malawi,” shows great need for sanitation facilities.
Findings of the study revealed gaps and areas for potential improvement that exist in both primary and secondary schools.
“To make the school environment conducive for girls to manage their menstruation while at school, this study recommends improvements to ensure enough privacy, connection of piped water to sanitation facilities, provision of space for girls to clean themselves and change clothes and disposal facilities or drying space for used sanitary material.
“This will require low-cost sanitation facilities designed through girls’ involvement and revisiting existing policies and proper strategies for reinforcing them,” it urges.
On its part, the 2020/21 Education Sector Performance report (ESPR), done by the Ministry of Education, on availability of potable water, the data shows that the many secondary schools have boreholes as their source of water.
“About 50 percent of all secondary schools in Malawi use boreholes as their only source of water while 46 percent use piped water. Almost 2 percent of schools (about 27 schools) across the country did not have.
“There is need to supply all schools with piped water because it is convenient. All boreholes should gradually be replaced with water taps,” the report recommends.
Secretary for Education Chikondano Mussa said earlier that there are 640 schools without water across the country—with 440 of them being at primary level.
Without water, it means learners have difficulties in realising menstrual hygiene.
Meanwhile, government, as part of Covid-19 preventive measures, has provided resources for drilling boreholes, which means many schools will have water.
Mussa said donors drilled 138 boreholes and the ministry was expected to sink 502.
She said: “Out of 502, we have managed to drill 150 boreholes, using Covid-19 funds.
“The challenge we have is capacity. We do not have many borehole drilling companies in the country. We have less than 35 who are struggling to have the job done on time.”
But the question remains on menstrual hygiene facilities? Should girls at Lusako and Kamphenda continue experiencing such hardships?