Malawi: Poor menstrual health threatens girls future

Date: November 27, 2018
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By: Taonga Mtambo

Blantyre, 27 November: Malawi is one of the countries in Southern Africa that has been affected by high levels of girls’ school dropout. Girls mostly in primary schools are dropping out due to poverty among others, which leads to poor menstrual health, child marriages, early pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

Growing up in Chikanda village in the city of Zomba Malawi, is a 14 year old girl Mary Juma (not her real name), who is in standard 7 at Mponda primary school. She is a second born in a family of 4, being raised by a father who is a watchman and a mother who is a domestic worker. Her mother earns not more than 16,000 Malawi Kwacha, which is almost equivalent to 22 dollars a month, and her father earns not more than 25,000 Malawi kwacha equivalent to 36 dollars, this family of 6 has to survive on 58 dollars every month, which is not enough.

Two years ago, Mary reacted to her age and she started her menstruation period following which her needs for survival increased. Her demands did not only go for food, clothes, school materials and others but they extended to sanitary pads for use during her menstrual period days of which her parents cannot manage to provide considering the little money they get per month.

The cheapest packet of sanitary pads in Malawi costs less than 1 dollar which is a lot of money for families like Mary’s as a result she has been forced to improvise. She uses cloths which are cut into smaller pieces during her menses which she says are not safe.

 “I use cloths during my menstruation period and most days I do not feel safe because they can easily leak and I sometimes end up staining my uniform and it is not conducive in a school environment. After use I wash them and leave them to dry so that I can reuse them during my next period. Mostly I leave them to dry in the house.”

 She further explains that she cannot hang her cloths to dry in the sun because to hang such things in the open where people can see is considered as a taboo, in my culture cloths used during menstruation period and underwear are not for others to see but yourself.

Mtisunge Gomani, a medical personnel at Kang’oma Health Centre in Lilongwe, Malawi talks against unsafe materials used during a girl’s menstrual period, “During a menstrual period the cervix opens a little and it contracts to expel the blood clots. During this, if one is using sanitary pads or cloths that are not properly taken care of or unclean, they end up attracting unwanted bacteria to the cervix.”

“These bacteria cause different complications in a female’s body including stomach pains which last long after menstruation period. They also cause urinary tract infection as the bacteria can end up affecting the bladder, the bacteria can also develop yeast infection which makes females very uncomfortable, and above all in one way or the other as you grow due to the bacteria that settles on the cervix cancer might take its course.”

Following this, females are encouraged to be safe during their menstrual period, change sanitary pads on regular basis do not let it stay long, and if using cloths make sure they are clean, sun dried and also changed on regular basis.”

Most girls do not feel safe in schools during their menstrual period as they do not have reliable materials to use for the menses. Girls are mostly uncomfortable in classes with boys and teachers because they are insecure about the cloths which they are use. As a result, they end up missing classes and staying home which greatly affects their performance in their class.

Mary has already lost 6 friends to school dropout this year, “This year alone 6 girls in my class have dropped out of school. Mostly people would say girls are not serious with education but in true sense, most us are struggling, people would just look at the outer shell and say girls dropout of school because they get pregnant or rush for marriage. However,  the real cause is that we struggle, our demands do not just end on food and clothes they go as far as safe sanitary pads which in most cases it is hard for our parents to provide.”

Tallying with the school dropout figures is the Head Teacher of Matiya Primary School in Zomba Damiano Nkhoma, who says that last academic year alone the school recorded that 5 girls dropped out of school due to early pregnancies. This is without adding those who dropped out due to Unknown reasons.

“Out of the 5 girls who were found pregnant 2 were in standard 6 while the 3 were in Standard 8, one of which managed to write her Primary School Leaving Certificate Exams while pregnant unfortunately she did not perform well.”

 He further said as a school they rely on the community and parents to encourage their children to continue with their education but in true sense there is minimal efforts from the community in keeping the girl child in school.

Most girls dropout of school because of mere issues which when handled correctly will be sorted and the girls will get back to school, some of which is the case of girls missing classes because they do not feel comfortable or safe learning during their menstrual periods.

He continued to say that such dropouts rates threaten future labour forces,  “Imagine losing 5 girls every year, how many girls will actually finish primary school and how many will actually pass secondary school to University let alone become active citizens?”

There is another Mary (not her real name), who is 11 years old and is in standard 4 at Matiya Primary School. She is the first-born in a family of 3 and is being raised by a single mother who is also domestic worker and receives 16,000 Malawi Kwacha which is almost equivalent to 22 Dollars or less, this has to sustain her family needs let alone Mary’s for 30 days before the next pay check.

What will happen when her body reacts to her age in the next year or so and she starts her menstruation period? Her personal needs will definitely rise and with her mother’s 22 dollars it will not be possible to sustain all her needs, let alone get her safe sanitary pads, with this will she be able to continue with her education or she is just in the number of girls who drop out of school? Well that is a story for another day.

Taonga Mtambo  is a journalism student  from Malawi. This article is part of the Gender Links 16 Days News Service #VoiceandChoiceCampaign

Photo by Joseph Kayira

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