Sanitary pads assist women and girls in emergencies

Supporting vulnerable girls with menstrual hygiene services

James Chavula
Beneficiaries of reusable sanitary pads in Nsanje district
UNICEF Malawi/2020/James Chavula
28 February 2020

After escaping a flooded home to an overcrowded evacuation camp around midnight, Esther Mbewe (not real name), has a tale to tell. When Nyamalikombe and Mtayamoyo rivers broke their banks on 8 March 2019, the 14-year-old from Nsanje District was among 87,000 people displaced by severe floods in Malawi.

Esther experienced her first menstruation in the camp housing over 5,000 Malawians and Mozambicans of all ages. “It was distressing. There was nowhere to hide. The camp was filled with men and women, children and adults. All eyes were on me," she says.

The biological process marking transition to adulthood in her culture exposed her to ‘period poverty’—the lack of access to menstrual hygiene products like pads due to financial hardship.
She narrates: “When it happened on 29 May 2019, an elderly woman told me I wasn't a child any longer. She advised me to bathe frequently and always wear sanitary pads during menses. But there was no bathroom, no privacy and no sanitary pads. I couldn’t afford a pad. My first pads were pieces of old cloth, which were uncomfortable." 

Lack of basics for the monthly cycle Esther couldn't wish away worsened her hardship and "it was not easy to change and wash the rags. The rags are tricky. If you don't fit them carefully, they can ruin your day. One day, it slipped, and blood stained my school uniform. Boys jeered me all the way from school to the camp. For a week, I didn't go back there,” she explains.

Restoring dignity
Esther is one of the adolescent girls who received menstrual hygiene kits from UNICEF during the humanitarian crisis. Funding from the Government of Japan enabled UNICEF to provide reusable pads to 6,000  girls displaced by the floods following Cyclone Idai.

“I got five washable pads. They gave me unimaginable comfort. I attended school without any worries. Unlike the rags, they are easy to wear. Besides, they are colourful and they don’t stink because they dry faster than pieces of cloth. I still use them today, almost a year after the floods,” Esther explains. 

UNICEF Malawi Child Protection Officer Nami Nakatani says menstrual hygiene management is very important during an emergency. “Inappropriate menstrual hygiene management may cause infection and the stress and shame associated with menstruation can affect the mental health of girls and women negatively. It is essential to ensure the dignity of the girls and women, which help empowers them to survive difficult situations," she explains.

Stella Davies, a local volunteer who took Esther through the “dos and don'ts” of menstrual hygiene, wishes sanitary pads were always part of emergency supplies. She believes UNICEF and its partners responded to “a neglected but basic need”, sending a strong message that menstrual hygiene counts, always. 

“When disasters strike, few organizations respond to the unique needs of girls and women. Some desperate girls are sexually exploited, which exposes them to unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, because they cannot afford sanitary pads. Others use any rag they see in their way,” says the volunteer.

She adds that the menstrual health kits from UNICEF relieved the misery of girls who arrived at the evacuation camp with nothing but the clothes they were wearing when disaster struck. "The support was timely. They could wash one sanitary pad while using another,” she explains.
At Bangula evacuation site, Stella worked closely with child protection officers from Nsanje District Social Welfare Office to counsel young people how to live positively and how to cut cloth to make pads.

Blamu Makawi, a community health worker at St. Kalemba Health Centre at Bangula, wants sanitary pads to be accessible to every girl and woman when they need them. “A clean pad is a basic need for her dignity. UNICEF’s emergency intervention helped avert vaginal infections that haunt women and girls who cannot afford dignified pads,” he says.

For girls like Esther, proper menstrual hygiene management not only allows them to live comfortably, but also makes them more confident and increases their chances of staying in school. Without pads, there is no personal hygiene for women and girls.