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

Irish Examiner - - Front Page -

“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.

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