Malawi: Make sanitary ware accessible and affordable

Malawi: Make sanitary ware accessible and affordable

Date: December 2, 2021
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By Jennifer Changwanda

Blantyre, 2 December: If Wongani Tembo* a form three secondary school learner at Lisumbwi Secondary School  in Mangochi District, eastern part of Malawi was given a chance today to talk to policy makers, she could ask them to scrap Value Added Tax (VAT) from sanitary pads and also make them affordable.

Every month she set aside K1000 ($1.34) from the little pocket money her aunt send her to buy sanitary pads because her bursary cater tuition fees only. But some of her friends though few receive free sanitary packages through their school bursaries.

“I forgo some other basic necessities to buy sanitary pads for my monthly periods because my bursary caters tuition fees only. Some students receive free sanitary pads from Non Governmental Organizations that support them. The rest of us buy “, said Tembo.

Tembo said for those who cannot afford to buy, they use reusable sanitary pads made from cloth and others turn to rags from old clothes “but they miss studies as they need to change and wash them frequently”

“Reusable pads and other unhygienic substitutes provide less comfort and also time consuming because you need to change and wash anytime you feel you are wet and also you need to bath regularly hence missing some studies”, explained Tembo.

Tembo`s entreaty represents petitions of several young women in Malawi who are failing to manage their menstruation with dignity due to period poverty.

Period poverty which is exacerbated by rise inflation rate, income disparities and non-prioritization of female issues continues to deny a lot of women their basic rights globally and perpetuates stigma and fear –deepening pre-existing inequalities.

Tembo said adolescent girls in boarding schools are better off but student learning at Community Day Secondary Schools (CDSS) are the ones are bearing the brunt of period poverty more due to long distances the cover to and from school and also lack of change rooms in schools.

“Think about girls who cover a lot of kilometers to and from school. Lack of change rooms and poor-quality products increase school absenteeism during their period in fear of menstrual leakage which attracts jeers and ridicule among peers”, Tembo narrated.

The 2021 Southern Africa Gender Protocol Voice and Choice  Barometer notes that Malawi is one of the seven Southern African countries that have neither removed VAT on sanitary ware nor provide free sanitary ware in schools.

Sadly, the 2014 report of United Nation Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) revealed that an estimate of 1 in 10 girls in Africa misses school when they are in period, and others prone to risk of infection from using unhygienic products, or not changing them on often enough.

In Malawi, where 50.7 percent  of its people living below the poverty line and 25 percent  of the population living in extreme poverty (according to International Monetary Fund)  negative impacts of period poverty are likely to be high because  one packet of sanitary pad is equivalent to a day`s working wage.

Sadly, in Malawi, lack of documented research on Menstrual Health Management (MHM) at national level fails government and other stakeholders to find out magnitude of the impact of lack of access to sanitary products on well-being of school-age girls and women. Currently, response is based on regional and documented research.

The 2020  BMC Journal   titled Acceptability of menstrual products interventions for menstrual hygiene management among women and girls in Malawi  argued that in Malawi, literature on MHM is scarce but anecdotal evidence and grey literature suggest that MHM is a challenge for women especially adolescent girls in schools and those in rural and/or low socio-economic status households.

“Apart from inadequate sanitation infrastructure that can accommodate menstruating girls at school, they also have limited access to affordable and hygienic menstrual products and old clothes are commonly used”, the journal said.

In Malawi, only Female inmates receive free sanitary pads following an allocation of K30 Million ($36,876) increase in the Malawi Prison Service health budgetary after the Centre for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance (CHREAA) with funding from Amplify Change advocated for allocation of funds to cater for Menstrual Hygiene Management in Prison.

But the rest of young girls and women in Malawi buy sanitary pads and the cheapest goes at K750 ($0.92) including the 16 percent VAT.

Executive Director for the Coalition for the Empowerment of Women and Girls Mateo said it is unfortunate that up to now Malawi Government is still charging VAT on the already ‘expensive’ sanitary pads though menstruation products are one of the basic necessities.

“A lot of people in Malawi live in rural areas and they do not earn much money to allow them to buy sanitary pads for their adolescent girls and young women” said Mateyo.

She explained that putting 16 percent VAT on sanitary pads is an infringement of basic rights of school-age girls including right to education as it prohibits menstruating in a safe and dignified manner when schooling.

“We have had instances where girls stay away from schools because they do not have sanitary pads. People use very local materials that do not enable them to stay at school comfortably during the period. It is high time we come up with concrete solution on this problem by eliminating VAT on these products”, said Mateyo.

The Youth Active in Sustainable Development (YASD) a youth organization in Malawi implementing programs in support of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals said that VAT on sanitary pads is exacerbating pre-existing inequalities because a lot of women and girls are already struggling with social-economic problems.

“Menstrual hygiene is required for all girls and women and this is achieved by using clean sanitary products. Currently a lot of girls in rural areas cannot afford to buy sanitary pads because they are expensive and putting VAT on it also make things worse”, said Chivunga.

Chivunga said that the Government should also contemplate on the long term impacts of period poverty on the education system and development.

“If girls cannot afford sanitary pads, there will be low attendance in schools when there are in menses because they are not confident enough. Some girls are likely to indulge in sexual relationships just to get money to buy sanitary pads. These in turn will result to poor performance; drop out, high HIV prevalence and unwanted and early pregnancies”, said Chivunga.

Chivunga also bemoaned the growing dependency of Non Governmental Organizations to fund initiatives of free distributions of sanitary pads saying that not all girls benefit from these projects and sustainability is also a challenge.

“Not all girls are benefiting from free distributions of sanitary pads. On top of that projects like these are not permanent. When such projects phase out girls turn to old ways. They find it hard to be in schools due to period because of the burden that comes with having to constantly wash. Eliminating VAT on sanitary pads and make them affordable is what can help girls to reach their full potential” said Chavunga

Programs Officer at Water and Environmental Sanitation Network (WESNET) in Malawi Asayire Kapira said that apart from removing VAT on Sanitary Pads the Government should also properly document MHM guidelines and policies.

“We are asking the Government of Malawi to help MHM management sector by removing tax on sanitary products and make them accessible which is a challenge right now to women and girls, develop MHM strategy that will guide implementation of MHM related issues and also a steering committee that will help in running MHM affairs”, Kapira quoted in a documentary titled Hustle to Access Sanitary Pads in Malaw produced by Wesnet.

*Not real name

Jenipher Changwanda is a Malawian Journalist. This article is part of the GL News Services and Feature Service Sixteen Days of Activism News Series.

3 thoughts on “Malawi: Make sanitary ware accessible and affordable”

Phumzile lukhele says:

Hi i am willing to give away sanitary pads boxes all over the world please guide me to a right path.

Communications says:

Many Thanks for this . Colleagues in the Grant Making Unit will be in touch

Steve chatha says:

Kingdom greetings Sir,
I am afounder and Director of Mzati Foundation based in Blantyre.we have aproject to distribute sanitary pads chalkboards and books to girls around Malawi and november month we starting with Blantyre and chiradzulu schools .
Please we need donars or sell us pads in bulks at reasonable price.

It will be highly appreciated and ablessing to meet acommunities and girls needs .

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