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Saving schoolgirls from undue anxiety

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TAKEN ALONG—Members of an interest group
participate in discussions

By Kondwani Magombo:

The day Atuweni, “grew up” and had her first menstruation, she did not know what to do. She had heard so many narratives – facts, myths and misconceptions – about menstruation that the situation at hand left her more confused than assured.

When Atuweni confided in her mother about her condition, the latter only confused the girl even more.

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“My mother said I should stop applying salt to any food, let alone touching the salt, during the menstruation period,” the standard six learner at a primary school in Nsanama Zone in Machinga said.

The mother also told Atuweni to stay away from people as long as she was on her periods.

“My mother told me that what I was going through would be happening to me every month: that meant every month I would be taking a week off school,” she explained.

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Fear and anxiety are common experiences among adolescent girls in Malawi and beyond because myths and misconceptions overshadow facts about menstruation.

Studies reveal that up to 45 percent of absenteeism in schools among adolescent and older girls is attributed to menstruation.

The studies have indicated that this rate is aggravated by the type of absorbents used, lack of privacy at school, restrictions imposed on girls during menstruation, mothers’ education and source of information on menstruation.

The girls miss their class tests and classes due to pain, shame, anxiety about leakage and staining of their uniforms.

So the Department of Information, in conjunction with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, has moved in with a project called Menstruation Hygiene Management (MHM) in Schools to address the challenges.

MHM is being implemented in selected schools in Chikwawa, Machinga and Nkhotakota, with funding from Unicef.

According to the project’s national coordinator, Wallace Chipeta, MHM’s key objective is to provide correct and adequate information on menstruation.

Chipeta said the implementation of MHM will help girls receive necessary support and continue to attend lessons without any breaks due to menstruation; hence, improving their learning outcomes.

“Most girls do not attend classes during their menstruation due to cultural beliefs that they are unclean during that time,” Chipeta, who is also national coordinator for Communication for Development (C4D), and secretary for National Social Mobilisation Committee (NSMC), said.

He further indicated that lack of washrooms in schools denies girls dignity and privacy when handling their menses and that MHM seeks to address that problem.

The project rolled out in 2021 by mobilisation and training of groups of interest such as primary education advisers, traditional leaders, religious leaders and mother groups from 51 selected schools in the three districts.

The groups of interest were trained in mobilising target groups such as teachers, parents and adolescent boys and girls on MHM to ensure that cultural beliefs, myths and misconceptions that surround the topic are dealt with.

In Machinga, MHM is being implemented in Kawinga, Ntaja, Nsanama and Mlomba zones, among other areas, and girls and other stakeholders say the fruits are there for all to see.

“After the training, we mobilised parents and shared with them knowledgement what we had learned about MHM; we also mobilised the girls and teachers at our school and shared with them knowledge on the same,” Emily Kamtedza, a Mother Group (MG) member at Chilala Primary School, Mlomba Zone, said.

According to Kamtedza, MG members at the school stock the changing room with hand-made washable sanitary pads and all the necessary materials such as soap and water to the convenience of the girls.

“The coming of the changing room, coupled with the sensitisation on MHM, has resulted in a dramatic drop in absenteeism among girls at the school,” a teacher responsible for school health and nutrition at Chilala Primary School, Chisomo Muotcha, said.

She further disclosed that the school hardly records cases of absenteeism among girls due to menstruation.

The school’s head teacher, Samuel Kamanga, concurred with Muotcha, saying even the enrolment in the upper classes has more girls than boys, which was reportedly not the case in the past.

The trend is the same in most of the schools where the MMH project is being implemented in the district, where there are well-stocked changing rooms for the girls.

“We are very happy with this project and are ready to sustain it even after its expiry,” explained the district’s coordinating PEA, Medison Kachoka.

For the MHM implementing partners, the success that the project has registered is not just encouraging but a reflection of what can be achieved if it can be up-scaled to other schools.

For Atuweni and all girls in the schools where MHM is being implemented in Machinga, the project has broken the psychological bondage, ushering the girls into a world of freedom.

“Menstruation no longer scares me,” Atuweni said, a bold smile flitting across her face. “I no longer find any reason to stay away from school because I find everything I need for my care right at my school.” —Mana

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