Periods during the pandemic

Menstrual hygiene management

By Naomi Kalemba
Emelesi, with her new sanitary pack
UNICEF Malawi/2021/Mvula
28 May 2021

My periods, a big surprise.

Despite the fact that menstruation is a normal, healthy biological process, menstruation remains a taboo and a topic often discussed discreetly in most communities in Malawi. As a result, most girls only know about menstruation once they start their periods.

Having grown up blind and in a community where no one talks about periods, Emelesi was clueless when she got her first menses. On the day of her first period, Emelesi hardly noticed anything until her mother saw her stained dress and lovingly helped her to change. She then taught her how to wear, wash and discreetly dry her menstrual cloths locally known as “zimwere”. She also taught her how to avoid leakages, handle period cramps in addition to a long discussion on boys and pregnancy.

Pieces of cloth or pads? Limited menstrual hygiene product options for girls in Malawi.

“Organising, folding and wearing cloths during menses is not easy for a blind person. If I don’t fold them correctly, they feel uncomfortable and hurt. Keeping them dry is also not easy. Traditionally, one cannot hang their period cloths out in the sun, so they do not dry properly and often smell bad. In winter, I sometimes wear wet cloths,” explains Emelesi.

Emelesi also adds that, periods reduce her physical activities. She cannot play and run around as much as she would like. She mostly keeps to herself and sometimes misses school especially if she feels that she may have a leakage, which often attracts jeers from boys. 

Emelesi and friends going through the items in the sanitary packs
UNICEF Malawi/2021/Mvula
Emelesi and friends going through the items in the sanitary packs

Periods during the pandemic

Emelesi is now in boarding school at Malingunde Resource Center school for the Blind. To make her life easy, her parents bought her pads. “I used pads during my first term here. They were comfortable, soft and light,” she says.

However, during the pandemic, schools closed and Emelesi had to go back home. “My father had a tough time with his small business. Things slowed down and he could not afford a lot of necessities including pads. So, I started using cloths again,” she adds.

The COVID-19 infection rates in the country are relatively low and schools have re-opened. Emelesi is back in boarding school where she has received a sanitary pack from the Water and Environment Sanitation (WES) Network, which UNICEF Malawi is part of.  “The sanitary pack has 10 reusable pads. They are comfortable, easy to put on, soft and dry easily. They are better than the cloths that I use back home,” Emelesi explains. “These will make my life easy,” she adds.

Mrs Lungu, a matron at Emelesi’s school, wants sanitary pads to be accessible for every girl including girls with disabilities. “Pads make the girls’ lives easy. They allow the girls to live freely and comfortably and enjoy their childhood,” she says.

Deputy Minister of Education, Madalitso Kambauwa Wirima and UNICEF Malawi, Deputy Representative, Margarita Tileva during the handover of climate resilient water supply facilities at Mchoka Primary school in Salima district
UNICEF Malawi/2021/Mvula
Deputy Minister of Education, Madalitso Kambauwa Wirima and UNICEF Malawi, Deputy Representative, Margarita Tileva during the handover of climate resilient water supply facilities at Mchoka Primary school in Salima district

UNICEF Support

Clara Chindime, UNICEF Malawi’s Adolescent Development Specialist, says apart from lack of access to hygienic sanitary towels, girls in Malawi have inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities in schools. They do not have change rooms, disposal facilities for used sanitary materials and often must cope with menstruation related taboos.

In response, UNICEF Malawi is supporting the Ministry of Education to develop a standardised training manual on Menstrual Hygiene and will support over 50 schools with skills to make homemade safe reusable pads, buckets, and soap for hand washing.

UNICEF Malawi will also support 30,000 learners and 50 mother groups and teachers with Menstrual Hygiene Management information to help reduce stigma and discrimination during menstruation.

In addition, with support from UNICEF Switzerland, UNICEF Germany, UNICEF Norway and the Basque Government, UNICEF Malawi will support seven schools with climate resilient water supply facilities to help improve hygiene during menstruation in schools.