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Breaking taboos, dressing menstruation in ordinary robes

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CELEBRATORY—Girls

By Wezzie Gausi:

The death of Gift Banda’s wife in 2017 left him confused about what the future would hold, more so because she left behind twin girls.

Banda, a school committee member in Traditional Authority Mzukuzuku in Mzimba District, says, to compound his situation, there was nobody else to help him raise the girls.

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His fears manifested when one of the twins started menstruating.

“I felt sick in my stomach. I moved about like a mad person,” he said, describing the experience as new.

He wished his wife were alive, and he felt that she would have been in a better position to respond to the situation accordingly.

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“I ended up sending my daughter to her aunt. I did not even bother to learn about whatever they told her,” Banda said.

Banda said his perception changed when officials from one of the non-governmental organisations in the country visited the area and introduced a Men Who Know (MWK) curriculum.

The initiative, he said, helped men like him— people who have zero or little knowledge about menstrual hygiene issues and their impact on girls and women.

“I wish I learnt this earlier. I could have helped my daughters myself and could have treated them better and not like strangers. My only request is that this kind of education should not stop here,” Banda said.

Some organisations in the country are reaching out to men and those who have limited access to cost effective menstrual products and often lack understanding about what puberty and menstruation is.

This is being done through advocacy, menstrual education, distribution of menstrual hygiene kits and empowerment of local organisations and institutions that serve women and girls.

Members of the clergy are among people that have benefitted from knowledge on menstrual hygiene.

Pastors Fraternity Secretary, Reverend Paul Kachigunda, said knowledge on menstrual hygiene is a necessity, considering that some members of the clergy have little knowledge on the issue.

“The clergy have a role to play in breaking menstrual hygiene silence. The time is now for the church to take a leading role in civic educating members on menstrual hygiene.

“We have a lot of girls that suffer silently on such issues. Most often, girls are suppressed by boys, most of whom seem to have no knowledge about menstrual health. There is a need for this information to be passed on to many people,” Kachigunda said.

He said knowledge acquired would help the clergy avoid misjudging girls and women because of hormonal changes that happen on their body related to puberty and menstruation.

The pastor added that such knowledge would increase girls’ attendance and participation in worship day activities in churches because girls and women would be unhindered by menstrual hygiene issues.

Eunice Chimphoyo-Banda, who is the country representative for one of the organisations that have been promoting menstrual hygiene in Malawi, said the partnership with the clergy is important.

She said the clergy could help those that are promoting menstrual hygiene influence attitudes and behaviour among girls, women, boys and men.

Asked about the importance of including underwear in menstrual hygiene kits for poverty-stricken and underprivileged community members, Banda said it was important to do so because most of the girls in the country do not have underwear, according to what they found in the course of doing their work.

Chimphoyo-Banda said she recently came across an article that indicated that approximately 76 percent of women and girls in rural communities have period poverty and do not have access to disposable pads.

She pointed out that the majority of those do not even have access to underwear to use when they are menstruating and that there is always jubilation among girls when they discover that part of the package her organisation provides to girls includes underwear.

“On average, a woman menstruates for a period of 3,000 days from menarche to menopause – if one would menstruate continuously, that would take them at least eight years! We, therefore, cannot ignore a subject that inevitably affects approximately half of an entire woman’s lifetime. Women represent nearly half of the global labour market and, in Malawi, the labour participation rate for women is nearly 73 percent.

“When our girls cannot attend school and when our women cannot work or take care of their family responsibilities because of menstrual inequity, our families, communities and national economy are impacted. More than this, women and girls are limited in their ability to achieve their goals because of the body they were born into. Menstrual hygiene is, in our view, a matter of human rights,” she said.

On the recent removal of taxes on menstrual hygiene imported products, Banda said taxing menstrual products was discriminatory and perpetuated gender inequality.

“Menstrual products are basic necessities and a matter of human rights. Before removing the VAT [Value Added Tax], menstrual products were taxed as a ‘luxury’ item, which sent a message of inequality and was an explicit [act of] gender bias because women and girls were being targeted for an involuntary bodily function,” Chimphoyo Banda said.

So far, over 5,000 girls, 750 community leaders and 850 boys and men have benefitted from menstrual hygiene information provided by people such as Chimphoyo-Banda.

With this intervention, the feedback received was that girls can now manage their periods with confidence and without shame, they are attending classes, hence cases of absenteeism among girls in the schools reached have become negligible, resulting in girls pursuing opportunities with confidence.

Mother Group Chairperson for Msauka Primary School at Kasiya Education Zone in Lilongwe, Lutiya Dawe, was one of the participants at a recent meeting with the clergy.

She said girls and women in her area are now empowered to manage their menstruation with dignity. They have become more confident, and this confidence spills over into every aspect of their lives, including participation and good performance in school for girls.

“Women and girls have access to accurate information, a choice of menstrual products, safe and hygienic washrooms, clean water, referral to healthcare services, social support and freedom from shame and stigma,” Dawe said.

Education Minister Agnes NyaLonje indicated, earlier this year, that the government was committed to addressing problems that girl learners face.

She said this was why, using Covid response funds, school blocks had been constricted, boreholes drilled, among other things.

NyaLonje said the government was also doing its best to remove barriers to education so that education goals, as espoused in Malawi Growth and Development Strategy and Sustainable Development Goals, could be met.

In Malawi, there are over four million women and girls of reproductive age, representing 24 percent of the total population. The majority of these women and girls experience barriers to full menstrual health – to the products, education, infrastructure, healthcare and social support they need to manage their periods.

However, such challenges have been minimised, thanks to efforts of organisations that are reaching out to girls, boys, men and women— all in the hope of making life bearable for girls.

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