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Back to school one pad at a time

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Agnes NyaLonje

She had a feeling of deep contentment when she returned to school for the first time on Monday, October 4 2021, since she dropped out in 2018.

It was as if 15-year-old Siyeni had just stirred into wakefulness.

“I dropped out of school in February 2018 because my father had just died and I had no one to look up to, in terms of the provision of resources.

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“I am also a girl that, from time to time, has to face some natural phenomena. I am talking about menstruation. There was no one to give me money for buying sanitary pads. I decided that enough was enough,” she said.

However, like a rhythmic heart that throbs and throbs, some mother group members never tired of pestering her to go back to school.

But, for the past three years, their calls were falling on deaf ears.

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Until last week.

“I understand that there is a chance for me to be getting materials such as pads because some well-wishers have pledged to capacitate women in my village. I am hopeful that it will be easy for me to have access to sanitary pads and other materials,” she said.

Coincidentally, during the same week, her and other Village Head Manesi Kapeni’s subjects in Blantyre Rural received visitors who came with good news to the women there.

The visitors were from Umodzi Youth Organisation (Uyo), with project manager Memory Pondeponde observing that cases of school absenteeism would be reduced if parents were capacitated to make sanitary pads and other materials in localities.

She said this when, during the visit that week, her organisation donated five sewing machines, which will be used for training 10 women in sanitary pad sewing, to Likulu Primary School in Blantyre.

“We understand the challenges that girl learners face, especially when menstruating. To help address the problems, we partnered France-based institution L’Oréal Fund for Women to provide resources such as sewing machines and materials for the production of sanitary pads. These materials will be distributed free-of-charge to girls that have reached puberty.

“We thought of empowering village women to be supporting girls at Likulu Primary School. It is our hope that once these women, who are members of the mothers’ group at the school, are trained in sanitary pad-making, they will be able to support the girls as well as their [women’s] families,” Pondeponde said.

She added that the donation was one of the interventions under Uyo’s Promoting Girls in Education Project, under which toilet blocks where girls would be changing pads would be constructed.

“Research findings indicate that lack of rooms where girls can be changing pads when menstruating is one of the factors leading to school absenteeism and school dropout. At the same time, we want to capacitate women so that they can become entrepreneurs and self-reliant,” Pondeponde said.

Likulu Primary School Head teacher Senzeni Zaipazatha said the sewing machines had come at the right time.

“This is a dream come true for us. I believe that girl learners will no longer be missing classes due to natural phenomena such as menstruation and other factors. If girls attend classes without fail, they do well in Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education examinations,” she said.

One of the sewing machines recipients, Rose Titani, said she would put sewing skills she would acquire to good use.

“Through the sewing skills acquired, I will be sewing my own clothes, those of family members and even clothes for sale, which will culminate in economic empowerment. I have always wanted to play a key role in generating income at household level,” she said of the initiative, which Uyo is implementing for one-year with financial support from the Paris-based L’Oréal Fund for Women as one way of empowering women economically and helping them to be self-reliant.

Manesi Kapeni was equally elated, saying pads are some of the essentials every school-going girl needs, hence those that claim that they dropped out of school due to lack of pads and other materials can be understood.

“However, understanding their situation does not mean we must accept it [the situation] and fold our hands and do nothing about it. I think building the financial capacity of women is one of the things we can do to avoid a situation where some girls are dropping out of school due to lack of resources,” the traditional leader said.

Just last week, Ministry of Education officials disclosed that, even at secondary school level, some children were losing out on education.

Education Minister Agnes NyaLonje said, for example, that 84 percent of secondary school-going children were not in school in the country due to limited resources.

NyaLonje further said the country has five million learners in primary schools against 415,000 that are enrolled in secondary schools.

She said the figures at hand were worrisome and the government had put in place measures to bridge the gap.

“We, as a country, need a lot of resources to bridge the gap between those in school and those not in school. We cannot talk about achieving Malawi 2063 when youths are failing to attain secondary school education,” NyaLonje said.

Civil Society Education Coalition Executive Director Benedicto Kondowe said the education statistics were worrisome.

“However, these figures have been there for some time now and we are hoping that something will be done about the situation fast. Let the government allocate more resources towards the education sector which is of paramount importance,” Kondowe said.

While the government is fiddling while Lilongwe burns, however, some non- State actors such as Uyo have already started filling the gap. One cannot tell for how long the situation will be allowed to persist.

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