Menstruation is taboo in Malawi, with girls often skipping school and suffering as a result, but an Irish NGO is leading an initiative to produce reusable sanitary pads.
Menstruation is taboo in the poor African country, with girls often skipping school, but an Irish NGO is leading an initiative to produce reusable sanitary pads, writes Laura McAndrew
“Will it make noise when I walk?” said 19-year-old Gracey Chipofya when she had completed her first attempt at sewing a reusable sanitary pad. It was a question that was neither expected nor prepared for by her Cork demonstrators, who recently undertook a reusable sanitary pad initiative in Malawi with Irish NGO, Wells For Zoe (WfZ).
One in every 10 girls in Malawi — a 2015 UN estimate that has weathered and endured the years since — will miss up to a week of school per month due to cultural taboo surrounding menstruation and the lack of appropriate or affordable sanitary options.
In the suburbs of Mzuzu, which is in the northern and least-developed region of Malawi where WfZ is based, the initiative aims to teach the 250 girls who they support how to sew reusable sanitary pads from locally sourced material. It also involves collaborating with local schools to give demonstrations, which is increasing the reach of the initiative.
“In Malawi, many girls fail to go to school, because sometimes there can be stains on your cloth and people will laugh at you. I would stay at home for about four days each time. I used chitenje (local cloth) or cotton as a sanitary towel. Most girls just use the cloth, because they can’t afford other options,” said Martina Simkonda, who was supported by the charity in her final year of secondary school.
From speaking with many local girls, Martina’s story about missing school is not uncommon and she is now part of the WfZ team who gives sewing demonstrations.
“In my class in Mlare secondary school in Karonga district, there were 98 students in total and 45 were girls. It’s hard to know exactly how many girls missed school, because, like me, they would just say they are sick,” she continued.
Malawi’s hollow victory last year saw it move from second to sixth place on the World Bank’s list of poorest countries. For girls like Martina, missing 20% of classes per month potentially means missing out on a better future, to whatever degree that may be.
WfZ found the cheapest disposable sanitary pads available in the area cost 6,000 kwacha (€7.15) per person per year. According to the International Monetary Fund, 51% of the population is living below the poverty line and 25% live in extreme poverty, equating the cost of available products to be far beyond the means of the majority of Malawian women.
The reusable design WfZ is using has a unit cost of less than €1 and is composed of chitenje, microfibre and thin farming plastic. All of these materials are found in abundance within the Mzuzu area and, once sewn, the design is secured to undergarments with an elastic and button.
International organisations are progressively taking the lead from local organisations on tackling school absences because of menstrual health, a strategy which appears to be successful in the rural village of Enyezini.
An hour off the beaten track from Mzuzu, down a dusty and orange scorched road, lies Enyezini community school. US Peace Corps teacher, Holly Kerker, is stationed there. The brick classrooms are capped with corrugated tin sheeting. Inside, up to 100 adolescent boys and girls are packed in with faces glistening from perspiration and a stagnant teenage odor in the hot, heavy air. Five students are squashed into a desk for three, presenting an ideal stage for embarrassment over menstrual mishaps. Holly, the only female teacher in the school, has successfully implemented a sanitary pad sewing class in the hope of preventing absences. The design, originating from a Malawian women’s group, is used by the US Peace Corps in African countries.
“Girls are often sent to the bush during menstruation, as they are made to feel dirty. In schools, inadequate toilet facilities further deter menstruating girls from attending school and what I have found is many of the girls in my class actually stay at home during this time, as they are understandably embarrassed when mocked about stains,” said Ms Kerker.
Principal of the school, Solister J Gondwe, said UNICEF are yet to officially open two toilet blocks they built at the school last year, and Plan International are currently building dorm blocks for student girls who are overnight lodgers. It is hoped the improved toilet and lodging facilities will reduce absences.
Holly and Martina think the sewing initiative is good, but they say some girls are still too poor to buy the materials required to make the pads. They advised that materials should be distributed to prevent the sewing tutorials going to waste.
However, Supreme Sanitary Pads Malawi (SSPM) in Nkhata Bay district is using a social enterprise business model to tackle menstrual health, and is having success charging for their reusable pads.
“I have found that a social enterprise structure is a good way of addressing an issue like this in a developing country. Having all these expats come in and then leave is expensive. If we give these skills to Malawians, then it is more sustainable than simply importing skill,” said Evelien Post, managing director of SSPM, which subsidises the cost of pads they sell directly to the Malawian people by charging more to bigger NGOs or organisations who have more means to pay.
“The cheapest reusable pad we have is 180 kwacha (0.21c). Our vision is for sanitary pads to become a household product, just like buying tomatoes or bananas. The pads have to be affordable enough to become that. Our staff consists of five Malawian village women — very smart women — but only one woman had experience in tailoring, so this enterprise not only provides employment, but it’s an opportunity for the women to learn a new skill. Only having Malawian staff makes the product attractive to rural shopkeepers and then we sell wholesale to local businesses. The staff are paid well above the Malawian average salary and work a five-day week.
“It’s quite common for girls to miss school during their period, but there are so many other cultural changes that happen once they reach menstruation age too... They don’t feel mobile enough for walking the long distances to school or elsewhere, as the chitenje cloth is folded several times and can cause painful burns on the upper thighs. In the schools, most lack changing facilities or even adequate toilet facilities. This is a huge barrier, it’s not just the biological challenge. There are social challenges involved too,” said Ms Post.
SSPM are also involved in tackling school absences through a menstrual health-education programme in local schools.
“In general, the male teachers we encounter in education are quite open and acknowledge there needs to be change, but there are definitely issues of sensitivity that need to be addressed. Some issues are as simple as girls not being allowed to go to the toilet during class or being made to stand up when speaking.
“There are also myths that exist in some villages, such as girls being impure or unclean, and the belief that a menstruating girl will ruin things if she touches them. This only adds to the social exclusion that menstruation often brings.”
A sewing workshop for reusable sanitary pads with senior staff of Irish NGO Wells For Zoe. The staff will go on to teach about the reusable sanitary pad once the Irish volunteers leave. Right: The teaching faculty of Enyezini community school, which...
From left, Matilda Mlotha, Lusungu Chirwa, Martina Simkonda and Gracey Chipofya. Martina said many girls in Malawi will not go to school when they menstruate due to embarrassment.