By Kondwani Magombo:
The day Atuweni Meja (not her real name), “grew up” and started her first menstruation, she did not know what to do. She had heard so many narratives — facts, myths and misconceptions — about menstruation that the situation at hand left her more confused.
When Atuweni confided in her mother about the situation, the latter only confused the girl even more as she, the mother, excitedly outlined a litany of dos and donts for Atuweni to follow, now that she had “grown up”.
“My mother said I should stop applying salt to any food, let alone touching the salt, during the menstruation period,” explained Atuweni, a Standard 6 learner at one of the schools under Nsanama Zone in Machinga.
“She also said I should always stay at a distance from people, including my parents, for as long as the menstruation could last; and that I shouldnt go anywhere during the period,” added Atuweni.
The girl was told that the menstruation period could last up to a maximum of 7 days. This knowledge left Atuweni worried; but what she learned next nearly paralyzed her with shock.
“My mother told me that what I was going through would be happening to me every month: that meant every month Id be taking a week off school,” explained the girl, adding: “This shocked me and I wondered why this had to be happening to us, girls.”
Fear and anxiety are common experiences among adolescent girls in Malawi and beyond where myths and misconceptions overshadow facts about menstruation.
Studies have revealed that up to 45 percent of absenteeism in schools among adolescent and older girls is attributed to menstruation.
The studies have indicated that this rate is aggravated by the type of absorbent used, lack of privacy at school, restrictions imposed on girls during menstruation, mother’s education, and source of information on menstruation.
The girls miss their class tests and classes due to pain, shame, anxiety about leakage and staining of their uniform.
To close the knowledge gap on menstruation and how to manage it, the Department of Information, in conjunction with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, has moved in with a project called Menstruation Hygiene Management (MHM) in Schools.
MHM is being implemented in selected schools in three districts of Chikwawa, Machinga and Nkhotakota, with funding from UNICEF.
According to the projects national coordinator, Wallace Chipeta, MHMs key objective is to provide correct and adequate information on menstruation.
Chipeta said in an interview that the implementation of MHM will help girls receive necessary support and continue to attend lessons without any breaks due to menstruation, hence improving their learning outcomes.
“Most girls do not attend classes during their menstruation due to cultural beliefs that they are unclean during that time,” observed Chipeta, who is also national coordinator for Communication for Development (C4D), and secretary for National Social Mobilization Committee NSMC.
He added: “Some girls absent themselves from school to avoid embarrassment that comes with poor handling of menstruation, and such problems are worsened by lack of water and sanitation facilities in most schools.”
Chipeta further noted that lack of washrooms in schools denies girls dignity and privacy when handling their menses and that the MHM is aimed at correcting all that in the schools the project is being implemented.
The project rolled out in 2021 by mobilization and training of groups of interest such as Primary Education Advisors (PEAs), traditional leaders, religious leaders, and mother groups, among others, from 51 selected schools in the three districts, according to Chipeta.
The groups of interest were trained to mobilize and train other target groups such as teachers, parents and adolescent boys and girls on MHM to ensure that all the cultural beliefs, myths and misconceptions that surround the topic are dealt with.
Since the trained groups of interest went out and trained the said sections of the society in the three districts, there have been remarkable gains regarding the girls education and menstruation is no longer the taboo or the curse that it was feared to be.
In Machinga, MHM is being implemented in Kawinga, Ntaja, Nsanama, and Mlomba zones, among others, and the fruits of the project are evident, gauging from testimonies from the stakeholders and the girls themselves.
“After the training we mobilized parents and shared with them what we had learned about MHM; we also mobilized the girls and teachers at our school and shared with them the same,” explained Emily Kamtedza, Mother Group member at Chilala Primary School, Mlomba zone.
She continued: “We also mobilized the community, the school committees and the school staff to have decent changing room constructed where the girls can freely wash and change during menstruation.”
According to Kamtedza, the Mother Group members at the school always stock the changing room with hand-made washable sanitary pads, and all the necessary materials such as soap and water to the convenience of the girls.
The availability of the changing room has not only eased the girls anxiety and embarrassment when need arises to wash and change during menstruation, but it has also stopped them from absenting themselves from school during their menses.
“The coming of the changing room, coupled with the sensitization on MHM to the girls, teachers and parents, have seen a dramatic drop in absenteeism among girls at the school,” explained Chisomo Muotcha, School Health and Nutrition (SHN) teacher at Chilala Primary School.
“Before the intervention, we could record 15 — 20 girls who were absenting themselves from school for some days every month,” she continued, “But now, we are hardly recording any absenteeism due to menstruation because we have everything at the girls disposal here.”
The schools Head Teacher, Samuel Kamanga, concurred with the SHN Teacher saying even the enrolment in the upper classes has more girls than boys — which was not the case before the introduction of MHM project.
“We were used to the fact that, in upper classes, more boys were coming to school regularly than girls; but now we have more girls coming to school: even our enrolment register shows that we have more girls than boys — and we are attributing all this to the MHM project,” explained Kamanga.
The trend is the same in most of the schools where the MMH project is being implemented in the district, where there are well-stocked changing rooms for the girls, and the issue of menstrual hygiene is no longer cause for anxiety and embarrassment.
MHM project has made the once taboo, and myth-shrouded topic of menstrual cycle a subject to be discussed freely by all, thereby impacting positively on the girls education.
The turnaround that the project has brought in girls education in Machinga district hasnt gone unnoticed by the education authorities.
“We are very happy with this project and we are ready to sustain it even after its expiry,” explained the districts Coordinating PEA, Medison Kachoka.
He continued: “The full impact of the project may not be immediate because some of the girls are in standards 5, 6, and 7 but their regular and continuous attendance of classes without interruptions will result into high Primary School Leaving Certificate Exams pass rate.”
For the MHM implementing partners, the success that the project has registered is not just encouraging but a reflection of what can be achieved if it can be up-scaled to other schools.
“We are pleased that traditional leaders and religious leaders can now freely engage their subjects and congregants, respectively, and discuss this subject,” explained Chipeta, the projects national coordinator.
“This has helped break cultural beliefs, fears and anxiety that always haunted girls before the introduction of the MHM.”
For Atuweni and all girls in the schools where the MHM is being implemented in Machinga, the project has broken the psychological bondage, ushering the girls into a world so free.
“Menstruation no longer scares me,” explained Atuweni, beaming. “I no longer find any reason to stay away from school because I find everything that I need for my care right at my school.
“Ive come to understand that the processes that once scared me is just another natural body system to be embraced and not to be embarrassed with.”