Menstruating with dignity

Students from schools within TA Kachindamoto’s area celebrate after receiving free reusable sanitary pads

In Africa, women and girls aged 10 to 50 constitute 30  percent of the population—or are 357 million in total.

Females make up most of Malawi’s population at 52% but remain one of the most marginalised segment of the population, alongside children.

Women for example, due to a number of reasons, do not menstruate with dignity. They are forced to survive on unconventional ways of taking care of themselves.

A woman menstruates an average of five days in a 28-day cycle, which translates into a total of 60 days in a year. During these five days, women need to have sanitary products and quality health care to manage their menstrual period.

Unfortunately, in most rural parts of Malawi, girls miss out on that luxury due to high poverty levels and absence of deliberate policies promoting access to standard and affordable sanitary pads.

In most rural areas, students miss out classes when it’s that time of the month. The number of days ‘lost’, has a significant effect on a girl-child’s academic performance.

The few that make it to school mostly use pieces of cloth locally known as Nyanda or, in extreme cases, muffled banana stalk barks, as makeshift pads.

15-year-old Grace (not real name) is one of the many girls at Mtakataka Roman Catholic Primary school who was facing challenges with managing her menstrual cycle with dignity and in comfort, without missing classes and jeopardising her ability to actualise her academic
potential.

“Whenever I or most of my friends were menstruating, it was difficult to attend classes because we did not have sanitary products. Using a piece of cloth is just not comfortable when you are in class,” explained Grace.

Ironically, menstrual health management is directly linked to women empowerment and the fulfilment of human rights, specifically sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), for women and girls.

But in Malawi just like the rest of Africa, challenges like inequalities in SRHR already deprive millions of girls and women, undermining efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals
(SDGs), among other developmental tools.

“Malawi cannot develop if certain populations continue to be ignored.
In this case, females and yet they make up the majority of the people,” explained Grace.

Grace’s story has changed as she is among 900 girls from TA Kachindamoto’s area who have received a timely intervention of reusable sanitary pads courtesy of Days for Girls—a non-profit
organisation empowering women and girls by providing them with sustainable feminine hygiene and health education.

Each girl received two reusable pads which cost K2000 (2.75USD), and that was all that was needed to break the chains of period shame.

“I am happy I received the pads and they will go a long way in ensuring that I remain in class even when menstruating,” remarked Grace.

While the cost appears affordable, it is not to poor Malawians like Grace. She concurred with India’s trending film, Padman, modelled on a grassroots innovator of sanitary towels in questioning the high price tag.

“Why should the price of something so light be so heavy,” the protagonist asked in one of the scenes.

Even Grace, a standard six pupil cannot fathom why sanitary pads are so expensive.

“For girls in town, maybe they understand why pads are expensive but for me, no. I wish it was possible to give out free sanitary products to women in Malawi, especially students. That will increase the country’s literacy levels, therefore, improve on human development,” she said.

The washable sanitary pads are made out of flannel cloth and waterproof material and can be used for three years according to Days for Girls.

“Research shows that most girls miss out on classes due to lack the proper menstruation management. We came up with sustainable and environmentally friendly ways of solving the problem. Days for Girls cultivates social enterprises where women handmade these washable
pads. We distribute to schools, orphanages, health centres and some are also sold.

“Again, we organised the event in the area to complement the chief’s efforts to bring girls back to school by providing these washable pads,” said Beria Michembo, Days for Girls Malawi administrator.

Similar efforts are being replicated by different organisations across Malawi. Though much needs to be done to reach out to as many beneficiaries as possible, reusable sanitary pads are not only restoring smiles on the face of girls who used to struggle due to the call of nature.

They are empowering the girls, building their self-esteem, as well as according them dignity while menstruating.

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