Girls rise as menstrual taboo fall

Menstruation matters

James Chavula
Bridget Banda showing her resuable sanitary pad
UNICEF Malawi/2022/HD Plus
25 May 2022

Bridget Banda grew up hearing and saying nothing about her sexuality. The 18-year-old is one of 54 girls in Standard Seven at Mfera Primary School in the low-lying Chikwawa District in southern Malawi.

The rude awakening came three years ago when she experienced her first menstruation in a class of over 150 learners, including about 100 boys.

 “I was just 15 years old, and I didn’t know what to do. No one had prepared me for the natural process that occurs every month,” she narrates.

Caught unawares, Bridget stuck to the floor beyond the “lengthy lesson”.

“I couldn’t go for a break. When boys saw bloodstains on my school uniform, they jeered at me all the way home,” she recalls.

The jeers not only disrupted her learning but also left her low on self-esteem.

“I was forced to be out of school for a week. I was ashamed and shocked. I couldn’t return to school until I regained some confidence to face these boys,” she states.

Then her school had no safe space for adolescent girls to change pads and tidy up.

“If the monthly periods suddenly started, I used to miss vital lessons. I had to run home to change the discomforting pieces of clothes I was using because I couldn’t afford sanitary pads.  Upon reaching home, I was too tired and discouraged to go back to class,” Bridget explains.

She lives in Chikole Village, almost 1.5km east of the school, with an enrolment of 887 girls and 926 boys.

The walk spans almost 50 minutes, 15 minutes longer than the period teachers allocate to each lesson in session.

“I used to miss lessons every month due to poor access to menstrual hygiene facilities and services. Like some girls in my situation, I silently stopped coming to school when menstruating,” she says

Bridget puts her hands up to answer a question in class
UNICEF Malawi/2022/HD Plus
Bridget puts her hands up to answer a question in class

Now Bridget and several other adolescent girls at Mfera no longer worry about their menstrual health.

In 2021, the suffering of adolescent girls persuaded the teachers and community members to construct a girls' changing room at the school.

The same year, the Ministry of Education, with support from UNICEF Switzerland through UNICEF Malawi, trained some teachers and mother group members in menstrual health and hygiene.

The support has lessened the hardship faced by adolescent girls and helped them to keep learning uninterruptedly until their dreams come true.

Bridget received five reusable sanitary pads, chucking off the discomforting old cloths. These rags were not only rough but also smelly and a breeding ground for infections. But the new ones are baby-soft. I wash them and change when necessary,” she explains.

This helps Bridget learn without fear of mishaps caused by the natural, biological process worsened by the culture of silence, she explains.

The teenager commends the teachers and mother group for convening both boys and girls to help them understand body changes associated with puberty and treat one other fairly.

Rose Kaligambe, a teacher who has been trained to support girls with menstrual health and hygiene management
UNICEF Malawi/2022/HD Plus
Rose Kaligambe, a teacher who has been trained to support girls with menstrual health and hygiene management

 “Following the meeting held soon after the training, boys who once taunted us now tell their friends to treat us with respect as their sisters. We love it that way,” the girl says.

Bridget says the colourful, washable pads have liberated her from prowling eyes.

“None of my schoolmates can tell whether I am menstruating. When the periods start, I quietly go to the changing room, clean up using soap, wear another pad and return to class without raising any suspicion,” she brags.

Rose Kaligambe, the teacher trained in menstrual health essentials, is filled with joy to see girls’ absenteeism falling. She mentors the girls and handles their secrets.

“As their matron, I’m excited that we no longer have 10 to 15 girls missing classes every month or quitting school due to a biological process they only need to manage better. The menstrual health management training enhanced my understanding and the way I support the learners to create an enabling learning environment where menstruation does not force girls out of school,” she explains.

The teacher has persuaded boys to give girls a hand instead of taunting them.

“The training involved how girls can take care of themselves and how boys can support them. Since we brought the learners together, there has been a huge change. They no longer laugh at each other. They assist and protect each other as brothers and sisters who protect, fully aware of the body changes associated with adolescence,” she states.

The open talks discredited the common misconception of monthly periods as a sign that a girl is old enough to marry and have children.

The Malawi Demographic and Health Survey of 2015 shows that nearly half of Malawian girls marry before the legal marriageable age of 18,and one in three falls pregnant before their 19th birthday.

Bridget says improved menstrual hygiene has restored her hygiene, well-being, self-esteem and dignity.

She states: “I experienced the first period aged 15, but that doesn’t mean I was ready to marry or give birth. I want to stay in school until I become a teacher, a role model for girls in my area.

“I don’t view menses as a curse anymore, but a process that is part of life. My schoolmates and I freely talk about and support each other, so everyone learns in peace.”