Boys break menstrual bounds
Menstrual health and hygiene
Acted Nowa is not your ordinary Malawian child. The 12-year-old Standard Seven boy freely talks about menstrual health, urging his fellow learners at Mfera Primary School in Chikwawa District to stop taunting girls when they are menstruating.
“There is nothing to laugh at because it is normal for girls in puberty to experience this every month. We only have to support them to remain in school and keep learning throughout the natural cycle,” he explains.
Acted’s march against the long-held taboo personifies a dramatic shift in attitudes and perceptions at his rural school, where even teachers found it normal to send girls back when they are menstruating.
Previously, it was not unusual for boys like him to jeer at a girl who stained herself during menstruation. They usually jeered at her from the classroom to the doorstep of her home.
As a result, these girls found it hard to return to school. Some stayed home for days, while others dropped out for fear of being traumatised again.
“We used to insult our sisters because we didn’t understand what they were going through and how we could support them. Even our school had no place where they could clean themselves and change pads without fearing intruding eyes,” Acted explains.
The firstborn in a family of three boys and one girl has become a role model for his peers who once treated menstrual issues as a curse or cause for alarm.
He has facts at the tip of his tongue, ready to confront misconceptions in places where boys meet to chat and play.
“I treat all 54 girls in my class as my sisters, so I wouldn’t like to treat them in a way I don’t want my three-year-old sister, Zahara, to be treated when she grows up,” Acted states.
He has even confronted some and reported others who have mistreated girls about menstruation.
For the boy, gone is the era girls stopped schooling during menses. He says it is old fashioned to force girls to stay out of sight during the monthly periods.
“I want to become a doctor and treat everyone equally. Girls have dreams too, so they require support to remain in school until their dreams also come true,” he explains.
The changing mindset among boys is pleasing to Cecilia Ndeula, the chairperson of Mfera Mother Group.
She is one of the mother group leaders trained in menstrual health and hygiene by the Ministry of Education with support from UNICEF. The training funded by UNICEF Switzerland also targeted teachers. The support encouraged the mother group and their communities to construct changing rooms equipped with water buckets and soap. They also provided reusable sanitary pads for the benefit of girls likely to be left behind in the global push for lifelong learning.
Ndeula finds it incredible that boys such as Acted are helping girls stay in school.
“There are about 1,000 boys at our school. If all of them spoke with one voice and undivided conviction, no girl would learn in fear or skip classes due to menstrual health gaps. The male champions convince me that my daughter, who is in Acted’s class, is safe,” says the 45-year-old mother of four.
The mother group works closely with teachers and parents to ensure every child learns. Their focus is firmly on protecting girls disproportionately at risk of quitting school too early due to early pregnancy and marriages fueled by poverty, harmful cultural practices and community indifference.
“After the training, we met all boys and girls as well as parents to explain to them the changes that happen during puberty and how they can support each other instead of making schools harsh for adolescent girls. I am glad they heed the call to help keep their sisters in school,” she states.
Looking back, she says, “During my girlhood days in the 1990s, when I was a learner here at Mfera, I used to miss classes for five days every month because it was unacceptable for girls to mix with peers and elders during the periods freely.
“We were required to say nothing and stay home. If teachers discovered that we were menstruating, they found it normal to send us home saying we were unclean.”
This is changing with increased awareness, male engagement and access to safe spaces such as changing rooms.
“It is encouraging that both boys and girls talk about it freely and support one another. The fading of secrecy associated with menstruation can only benefit the girls at risk of dropping out of school due to the natural body changes,” she states.
Adolescent girls at Mfera Primary School received five reusable sanitary pads each. Just like that, they discarded the discomforting cloths mostly used by those who could not afford a pack of single-use commercial pads sold at K800 to K1,000 in shops.
“The support from boys, who treat us with dignity, helps us learn in peace. They have become our brothers, not enemies,” says Bridget Banda.
The 18-year-old classmate of Acted stopped schooling for three days after being booed by boys when she experienced her first menstruation in class three years ago. Later, she frequently missed classes when the monthly periods kicked in.
Acted shudders to imagine seeing his sister being shamed similarly.
“I happily do my part hoping Zahara will find a better place than what my classmate found before our teachers and the mother group taught us to treat girls fairly so that they don’t feel shy or afraid to come to school,” he says.