By Faith Kadzanja
Salary earners are often joyful people when a month comes to its end.
It signifies a thrust of cash into their bank accounts and pockets.
But for some women and girls, the end of the month stirs anxiety. It is that time they experience menstruation and, thus, require special materials for handling the natural phenomenon.
In Malawi, where almost half of the population lives below the poverty line and 25 in every 100 people live in extreme poverty, only a few girls and women afford sanitary pads.
Menstruation, lasting an average of five days, requires an average of 10 pads fetching around K600 ($1.37) a month.
That money is too much for some girls such as Lilongwe-based Prudence Chavula, who recalls with apprehension the first days of her periods when she could use rags to keep the flow in check.
She started having her menses at the age of nine and seldom used a normal sanitary pad every month when menstruating.
Her parents could not afford the product.
“I was in standard five when I started menstruating. Back then, my parents could not afford to buy the pads every month, so I had to use shreds of old pieces of fabric,” Prudence explains.
She says it was embarrassing going to school while having her periods since the rags could easily leak and produce a bad smell.
Prudence concedes it is not easy for many girls and women from low-income families to afford sanitary products.
Thus, she says, they opt for alternatives which are usually unhygienic and hazardous to their health, sometimes leading to urinary tract infections.
Blantyre-based Aida Kaozala believes such infections, that she has had on several occasions, are due to the unsanitary fabrics she uses when menstruating.
“When I started having my menses, at the age of 11 years, my mother instructed some women to advise me to use rags from old cloths. It would often make me feel very uncomfortable at school such that I would sometimes remove them,” Aida says.
She is still using the shreds because she cannot afford the sanitary pads every month as she does not do anything for a living.
Every time she suffers from urinary tract infections, doctors advise her to check her personal hygiene.
She knows the source of her health troubles but cannot easily deal with it.
It is the case with many other girls who get the infections but get stuck with the unsanitary rags because that is all they have at their disposal to control their menses.
Reusable sanitary pads could solve the crisis, says founder of 10+ Her Period Her Pride Project, Peter Mndalasini, who further touts the materials as environment-friendly.
Mndalasini says 30 percent of young girls in Malawi, especially those in rural areas, stay out of school during their periods.
The average amount of K600 for buying the pads is not always available—in a month.
So, his organisation is training primary and secondary schoolgirls to fashion reusable pads to counter the challenge.
Water and Environmental Sanitation Network Communications Officer, Gloria Nyirenda, whose organisation is a member of the Menstrual Hygiene Management Hub, believes removing tax on sanitary materials can make them easily accessible to poor Malawians.
“In some countries such as Kenya, Uganda and the United States, this has been done. Most households in Malawi cannot afford sanitary pads, which are often seen as luxuries. It is all because of poverty,” Nyirenda says.
She even proposes that the materials should be provided free of charge and placed in public restrooms and institutions.
Apart from reusable sanitary pads, the menstrual cup is another option that girls and women can opt for.
Martha Mataka of Dedza finds the cup more convenient than the pads.
“I ensure I thoroughly clean the cup and use it every month. I don’t have to regularly buy the pads because I can’t afford them,” Martha says.
The small, flexible cup, made of silicone or latex rubber, catches and collects the flow instead of absorbing it like the pad does.
United Nations Population Fund introduced the cups, which were discovered in 1930, as an alternative measure for managing menstrual hygiene among girls and women.
Of course, the product remains new in Malawi, despite that it can significantly reduce absenteeism if widely adopted by schoolgirls from poor households.
After all, they take longer than the sanitary pads to be changed.