Malawi: Promoting Menstrual Health in prison

Malawi: Promoting Menstrual Health in prison

Date: January 30, 2020
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By Jane Changwanda,

Chichiri, 27 November: It’s month end when most shoppers are loaded with cash but in Agnes Bauti`s* shopping basket, a resident of Mangochi, a resort town in the eastern region of Malawi, there are no sanitary pads. She is a mother of four including two adolescent girls. Bauti is living hard so much that she can`t afford to buy 3 packets of sanitary pads going at as little as K700 because her meagre salary cannot afford what in the eyes of others could be seen as a “luxury”. But sanitary pads are not a luxury. They are a necessity.

“I can`t manage to buy sanitary pads for myself and my daughters because they are expensive. I am just a waiter at a certain restaurant and with my meagre salary sanitary pads look like a luxury. I have to use the money for our basic needs at home,” Bauti laments.

She reveals that with her daughters, they use small pieces of cloth made from old wrappers and rags to sustain their monthly periods.

It is even worse for Janet* in Chichiri Prison in Blantyre who has never  used a sanitary pad during menstruation for three years she has been in prison. She uses small pieces of rags and old blankets to sustain the 5 days bleeding. As an inmate, she cannot afford to buy sanitary pads not only because they are expensive but also because she has no reliable source of income.

“I face several challenges to manage menstruation here in prison due to lack of sanitary materials. We normally resort to rags and small pieces of old blankets to absorb my monthly flow. We cannot manage to buy sanitary pads because we don’t have any source of income,” Bauti explains.

She says going through monthly period in prison is a daunting moment as the prison service does not offer any sanitary pads to female inmates.

An official at Chichiri prison in Malawi, Annie Kitalo says, health risks that come due to poor management of menstruation hits harder women in prisons as they have no any source of income to buy basic necessities including sanitary pads, under wears and soap, making them prone to infections such as warts and chafing because materials they use are not meant to be used during menstruation.

“Pieces from old blankets or old blankets are a health risk and most of times these prisoners do not have soap, resulting in exposure to various health hazards. A lot of them suffer from candidiasis,” says Kitalo an official at Chichiri Prison.

The 2018 BMC International Health and Human Rights report on women prisoners’ health and unique needs in Sub-Saharan Africa shows that women are facing challenges to access unique health needs including basic necessities during menstruation.

The Malawi Parliament has approved an increase in the Malawi Prison Service health budgetary allocation by K30 million to specifically cater for menstrual dignity kits of the prison   for at least 300 hundred women and girls in prisons in the 2019/2020 national budget 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.

Activists in Malawi have applauded the allocation of funds to cater for Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) for women and girls in detention saying it will improve their wellbeing.

Executive Director for CHREAA, Victor Mhango says allocation of MHM funds at MPS is a great move as it will improve the wellbeing and dignity of female inmates as enshrined in Malawi Constitution especially in section 42 (1) of the constitution  that stipulates that at the expense of the state every detained person be held under conditions consistent with human dignity, which shall include at least access adequate nutrition and medical treatment.

“However, Government should also remove VAT on sanitary pads so that a lot of women can afford to buy sanitary pads as it is a basic need for all girls,” Mhango says.

However, there is also a need to put deliberate measures to aid women and girls especially in rural areas who cannot afford to buy sanitary pads because they are expensive. Echoing Mhango`s sentiments, Jobe says that Government should remove VAT on sanitary pads and also adopt the initiative which mother support groups are doing in schools to make reusable sanitary napkins.

“Apart from removing VAT on sanitary pads, the initiative of sewing reusable napkins in schools should also cater for all women and girls in rural areas who are still using rags during menstruation period,” Jobe says.

These are but a few examples women who are bearing the brunt of period poverty – a state whereby women and girls do not afford to use proper sanitary products or do not have information and facilities to use them properly during menstruation.

In Malawi a lot of women especially in rural areas do not afford to buy sanitary pads simply because they are not affordable. Roughly a cheapest sanitary pad packet goes at K700 (0.93$), including 16 percent of Value Added Tax (VAT).

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) notes that 50.7 percent of Malawi’s population live below the poverty line (1.90 dollars) and 25 percent are living in extreme poverty.

Executive Director of Malawi Health Equity Network (MHEN) George Jobe says it is worrisome that up to now women cannot afford to buy sanitary pads because they are expensive forcing them to resort to traditional ways of managing menstruation which reports say could easily cause infections.

“Women and girls especially in rural areas are still having limited or no access to sanitary products and information to use them properly. This pose threats to their health and wellbeing as most of the time girls miss one or more days of days of school which negatively impact on  their education. Added to this, their health may be at risk as they are forced to use rags to sustain the blood flow during the period,” says Jobe.

Executive Director for the Coalition for the Empowerment of Women and Girls Beatrice Mateyu,  says menstruation is a crucial period for girls and It is important to note that if they do not have access to adequate sanitary materials, “not only their school attendance is affected but their mental health as well.

“Sanitary towels not only add an extra burden on the girls but on their community and society at large because these girls continue to be disadvantaged if they are unable to access good sanitary materials.

“Adding taxes on sanitary materials means that these vulnerable girls have to dig deeper on their pockets just to make sure they access these basic rights,” Mateyu says.

She says instead of adding taxes, government should consider subsidizing these sanitary products so that they are easily accessible to girls who have no choice on this natural occurrence.

“The same way government is able to provide condoms so it should consider making these free of charge to its girls. These can be given through the schools as one way of encouraging school attendance,” Mateyu says.

*Jenipher Changwanda is a Malawian journalist. Additional reporting by the Center for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance (CHREAA). Picture courtesy of Chreaa. This story is part of the GL 16 Days SRHR News Service

*Not their real names

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