By Jenipher Changwanda
Blantyre, 28 May: Every menstrual period is a nightmare for many girls in Malawi including Joana Banda* who has a message for policy makers as the world commemorates Menstrual Hygiene Day (MHDay) with a theme ‘It’s time for action’: “Sanitary pads must be distributed free of charge in primary and secondary schools!”
Now in Form Three at one of the secondary schools in Malawi’s commercial capital, Blantyre, Joana says it is sad that policy makers are not considering the plight of girls when it comes to menstrual health. She says the issue of menstrual health should not be commercialized as is the case at the moment.
“I know a number of girls in my school who cannot afford sanitary pads because they are expensive. They use pieces of cloth as a substitute to sanitary pads. I suggest that schools should start distributing sanitary pads free of charge. It is possible,” Banda says.
Banda also shares how monthly periods come with anxiety for the girls in her school: “When you do not have sanitary pads you end up absenting yourself from classes. It is common for girls not to attend classes during monthly periods. Seriously, we need free sanitary pads.”
Banda’s plight which is similar to that of millions of other girls around the globe should compel authorities, especially in the education and health sectors to actively advocate for integration of menstrual hygiene management into national and local policies and programmes and concretising them into actions.
Authorities must also help to break taboos surrounding menstruation and raise awareness of the importance of good menstrual hygiene management in schools and beyond. For a long time, such taboos have only exacerbated problems girls go through during menstruation instead of helping them to celebrate womanhood and menstrual circle as part of life.
The World Bank notes that at least 500 million women and girls globally lack menstrual hygiene management. In sub-Saharan Africa, period poverty remains an overwhelming concept as most women and girls don’t have access to water, sanitation and good hygiene (WASH) and sanitary menstrual products.
The indifference that authorities are portraying on menstrual health is in sharp contrast with United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) goal number three. Good Health and Well-being. How could one live with good health and well-being when menstrual products are expensive forcing women and girls to resort to rags from old clothes and blankets to sustain the five days blood flow?
Worse still, this crisis on menstrual products combined with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has negatively impacted the well-being of women and girls. But periods – as it were – do not stop for pandemics such as COVID-19.
Like any other country in the world, Malawi too has been badly affected with the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermaths continue to negatively impact heavily women and girls compared to men thereby increasing existing gender inequalities.
For instance, the informal sector which provides livelihoods to many but characterised by low pay and limited job security has been negatively affected due to several restrictions that have been imposed to densify the pandemic.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to push a lot of women and girls in the informal sector into poverty. Several have already lost jobs or have been put on half salary leaving them hanging in balance.
School closures and stay home appeals have also increased the workload of women and girls for example the is growing need for water – forcing them to make several round trips to fetch water for their families widen their risk of contracting the disease as they share water facilities such as boreholes and water kiosks.
At least, half of the country’s population live below the poverty line and 25 percent live in extreme poverty according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to further push up these figures due to the decline of activities leaving citizens especially women struggling to make ends meet and strive to access hygiene menstrual products.
Roughly, a comfortable sanitary pad packet in Malawi goes at K850 ($1.17) with 16 percent Value Added Tax (VAT), which is equivalent to somebody’s whole day’s pay. In such circumstances, women prefer to buy food to sanitary pads.
Women, girls and advocates for health rights wonder why menstruation, a natural occurrence should attract VAT. Such action denies women and girls basic rights hence putting their health, education and well-being at risks as they turn to unsafe substitutes such as rags and newspapers.
Although there have been some projects by some organisations to improve menstrual health by distributing free sanitary pads, washable pads and menstrual cups, sustainability of these initiatives remains a challenge. When project funds dry up, sanitary pads stop coming, forcing students to use anything from rags to newspapers as sanitary pads.
Reusable pads also need to be washed and dried properly to kill bacteria which is a challenge to women and girls as menstruation goes with secrecy in this part of the world “because of taboos and misconceptions surrounding menstruation.”
Malawi Girl Guides Association (MAGGA), a voluntary non-governmental organization for girls and young women and a member of the NGO-Gender Coordination Network- Malawi, says it has been training girls and young women in the making of reusable sanitary pads “as a way of supporting them to hygienically manage their menstruation.”
“Economic problems girls and young women are facing in Malawi make sanitary pads unaffordable. Simply put they are expensive for school going girls. MAGGA has been advocating for quality locally produced disposable sanitary pads. Through interviews with our members we noted that there is a huge difference in the quality of sanitary pads that are sold and manufactured locally as compared to other brands,” says Mphatso Baluwa of MAGGA.
“A menstrual pad is supposed to give confidence to the user to avoid embarrassing moments. MAGGA is also advocating for change rooms to be built in all schools to allow girls to change freely while at school adds Baluwa.
MAGGA has also embarked in training of both boys and girls on menstrual hygiene management. Baluwa says the idea of training boys “prompts more support and understanding from boys.”
“This also reduces the amount of embarrassment that girls face when they start menstruating at school – whether for the first time or not. Nowadays girls are starting their menstruation at an early age like eight or nine. So, issues and information sharing on MHM are vital to all girls and young women,” she says.
With the advent of COVID-19 Baluwa bemoans the rise in transport costs in situations where girls have to travel long distances to buy sanitary pads “and the cost of transport is higher than the pads themselves.”
Malawi Health Equity Network (MHEN), a health rights grouping says government should remove VAT on menstrual products and empower communities to produce such products at local level so women and girls can menstruate safely with dignity.
“It is high time we recognised that menstrual products are some of the essential products and that imposing tax on them denies women and girls their health right. This forces women to resort to unsafe substitutes subjecting themselves to infections,” says George Jobe, Executive Director of MHEN.
He says lack of well-being and access to sanitary pads sometimes nurtures discrimination and is largely linked to girls’ absenteeism in schools “and even dropout.”
“So, government needs to make concerted efforts by making these products accessible and affordable by empowering local industries to cut costs which at the moment are imposed on the buyer who are women and girls,” Jobe says.
So, as the theme for Menstrual Hygiene Day, says ‘It’s time for Action’ it highlights the urgency for collective work to end period poverty. There is a need to step up with concrete solutions and tangible action that help women and girls to menstruate with dignity
As Joana and a million others would have loved, there is a need to advocate for removal of VAT from menstrual hygiene products now.
“We are already economically and socially disadvantaged due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But government and well-wishers should not stop thinking about our monthly problems – our monthly periods. We hope one day government will start distributing free sanitary pads in school so we can menstruate with dignity,” Joana says.
*Not real name
Jenipher Changwanda is a Malawian journalist. This article is part of the GL News Services Gender and Covid -19 news series.