During a recent Menstravaganza session with teen secondary school girls in northern Malawi, I took out a little decorated compact box from my bag and asked the girls what they thought it was. The common answer – a make-up kit. They all gasped in shock and awe when I told them it was a container to keep my sanitary products clean and away from my bag clutter… then I opened the box and they all shrieked in horror, some even covered their faces.
The act of exposing my sanitary products in public caused a shock with the young girls, who form part of the many girls in Southern Africa missing around 40 plus days of school a year due to menstruation.
Despite the taboos, menstruation is a big part of every girl and woman’s life. On average women and girls spend 3000 days of their lives menstruating! That is 8.2 years, on average 11.8% of their lives. Imagine being told to stay at home and do nothing for 11.8% of your life! But in some cultures this is the norm. Girls are taught from a very young age that when they are menstruating, they should stay at home because they are sick. In essence, 11.8% of their lives is spent being sick. 8.2 years is a lot of time to let perish because of societal beliefs.
UNICEF Malawi’s Keeping Girls in School (KGIS) program funded by DFID, has been championing girls and boys to break societal and cultural barriers, to open the dialogue, and to end the stigma around menstruation. It all started with the publication of the menstrual hygiene booklet, a personal pocket booklet aimed at helping girls understand their bodies better. The booklet was launched in July 2015 and is now being distributed in designated program schools. Reach is also being extended through newspapers to schools outside of the program.
To trial out the booklet and to celebrate Menstrual Hygiene Day, I recently went on a weeklong mission in the northern districts of Malawi. This was the start of Menstravaganza at UNICEF Malawi – a campaign within the program promoting menstrual hygiene advocacy, male championship, and strengthening girls’ confidence about their bodies.
The literacy rate statistics in Malawi depict that on average, boys are on the higher tip of the scale. Our KGIS girls shared some of the setbacks encountered in struggling to stay in school. They told me personal stories as being afraid to come to school while on their periods for fear of humiliation by boys who would peek into the girls’ school bags and find menstrual cloths – used ones in the worst case.
Most of our KGIS girls were strongly reluctant to wash their cloths at school, even in the newly constructed girl-friendly latrines. This is because in Malawi the menstrual cloth is never to be seen in public. From the onset of their first menstrual cycle, girls are told to wash their cloth and dry it by tying it around their waist and covering it with the local traditional wrap ‘chitenje’ so it will not be seen. The cloths do not always dry completely and even if they do, they are likely to have some mould and odour.
The KGIS program has initiated girls’ focus groups to target issues like these. UNICEF has developed these focus groups in each of the KGIS schools with the support of the Malawi Ministry of Education, head teachers, female teachers, parent-teacher association (PTA) members, along with mother groups. Our team hopes that through the guidance and knowledge in the focus groups, the girls will feel at ease talking about menstruation and ending the stigma around it.
The experience of the Menstravaganza campaign has been a true eye opener. Some girls expressed concern of being afraid to talk to someone when having irregular periods, fearing they would be accused of having done something bad (sexual) or being pregnant. They have been told many myths about periods including the need to have sex to rid themselves of abdominal period pains or that menstruation is a punishment.
Something that our KGIS girls no longer complain about is the lack of safe WASH facilities in schools. The construction of new girl-friendly latrines is a component of the KGIS programme, and although they are still reluctant to wash their menstrual cloths in them…they do use the changing rooms. This is a step in the right direction as we are aware that behavioural change takes time.
There have been other encouraging strides in the campaign – such as girls being interested in the concept of having creative and discreet means to carry their sanitary cloths to school without boys knowing. The interest came at some point between the terror they expressed after I had opened my own sanitary product container, and the mental debate on the level of judgment to pass for my public indecency.
The KGIS program aims to reach 100,000 girls in Malawi, but no girl should be kept at home because of a normal physiological function. With the impact already seen in the thousands of girls reached to date, we see no reason to stop at 100,000. All girls should have the right to living and learning without letting periods get in the way.
A girl will spend 8.2 years of her life menstruating. Instead of staying at home, she could complete her education and become whoever she wants. In 8.2 years, she could make it to planet Mars 12 times! The possibilities are endless.
Matshidiso Barsky is an Education Specialist and programme manager of Keeping Girls in School.