One day two female form 4 students appeared at my front door during a break from their national exit exams, the Malawi Senior Certificate Examination. Near tears, one girl shamefully directed my gaze to a spot on her skirt. She had gotten her period during one of her subject tests and, after twisting her skirt around to hide the stain under her hand, she came to ask if I could provide her with a pad. I led her to my water tap so she could clean up and she pulled out her emergency form of menstruation control—a dirty jumbo, or small plastic bag, which had been picked up off the ground and stuffed under her skirt in desperation.
Since then, I keep my house stocked with disposable pads for the girls who occasionally come to me in emergency. It’s easy to see the patterns in the schools; if a girl is on her period, generally, she ditches school. It’s easy to understand once we consider what these girls are up against. Firstly, there are certainly no tampons to be found in the village and disposable pads are much too expensive for purchase (generally rags or vitenje are used, items that easily slip out of place and cannot be frequently changed). Even if these convenient items were available for ordinary citizens, there are no sanitary areas in which to change them or to clean oneself—no toilets, no sinks, no locking doors, no privacy, no soap and water. Additionally, as in any place where teenage boys exist, these girls are very insecure when on their periods, paranoid about odor or stain. This is perpetuated by silly but understandably unnerving rumors that boys can tell when a girl is on her period by shaking her hand, looking into her eyes, or feeling whether she is warm or cool (warm indicates she is menstruating—a ludicrous idea in a region where you sweat more than 11 months of the year). Incidentally, the great majority of males also believe that menstruation is “disgusting” and shameful. When a Malawian girl child is experiencing her time of the month, she feels that she is in the spotlight and that she is completely repulsive. So, she stays home.
Unfortunately, this inhibits the girls greatly. Many of them miss about 5 days of school per month due to menstruation alone…that is 60 days per year that girls are out of school! Even when present girls are not expected to participate because, as teachers tell me, girls are just too shy. And why not? Besides the cultural idea that a woman should be seen and not heard and that a quiet, coy woman is most attractive, students also are required to stand when answering questions, a position that can be revealing and uncomfortable for a girl on her period with fabric scraps stuffed under her skirt. Is it any wonder girls are struggling to compete with boys academically? Is it any wonder that there is an endemic lack of confidence in the female population? Something that has been really fun for me is to tell these girls that boys actually don’t know a darn thing about female bodies or minds, in any culture. I like explaining that our periods (yes! ALL women get them, in every culture and race!) aren’t disgusting or dirty or shameful but natural and normal. I like demonstrating that our periods don’t have to hinder us, and that we deserve to be able to continue attending school and work despite our monthly visitor. And finally, recently, I’ve been able to show my girls and my lady friends that there are better options than staying home, than rags stuffed under our skirts, than a balled-up chitenje constantly slipping down, than jumbos or other trash in our panties.
This month I had a visit from a fellow PCV, who conducted two amazing workshops in my area. Elizabeth is a nurse whose pet project is education of female physiology with an emphasis on puberty changes including menstruation. For lack of a better term, I suppose we can call her a sex ed teacher! I admire Elizabeth so much—she has this inconceivable natural accessibility. I’ve watched her in several workshops and have seen the girls and women (and occasional men) intensely focused on her as she somehow gracefully bypasses racial differences, communication barriers, and the bashfulness that is inherent with discussing bodily functions. She is an animated and vibrant instructor with a gift for simplifying female anatomy and debunking myths with her extensive medical knowledge.
Our first workshop here in the Bandawe Cluster was a training of trainers. Life skills and biology teachers (including two men!), hospital workers, women’s group members, a Girls Club leader, a local volunteer, and two of my strong girl student leaders attended to gain skills to teach local girls to better understand and care for their bodies. They were then given thorough instruction and did a practical for making Elizabeth’s reusable pads. Her user-friendly panty liner buttons securely and holds changeable “pads” made of folded scrap materials, designed specifically to offer security and hygiene to girls so they will be more likely to stay in classes during their menses. It was a hit! My site mate, Ross, was generous enough to attend to provide a masculine touch for the two men in attendance, who did a surprisingly good job with (and were enthusiastic about!) their sewing. For the last hour they sat in small groups with the ladies as the sewing bee atmosphere descended on Bandawe Secondary School along with the intense humidity, smiling and chatting and good-humoredly asking for assistance when necessary.
After the 3-hour training of trainers (which was really nearly 5 hours because of the lack of punctuality and abundance of chatting in Malawi), we conducted a meeting with some of my Girls Club members. Elizabeth took them through explanation of carefully-chosen physiological topics, a routine she has conducted so many times it is now a fluid and flawless performance. She discussed with them the monthly cycle and the way periods work, then let them demonstrate the function of the uterus with models (the cut-off tops of water bottles stuffed with “the most comfortable bedding for the egg,” or red ribbons that were then pulled out the opening along with the “egg”). She went through the journey of the egg, and took them through a series of scenarios about sex and pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and menstrual health.
During the question and answer period, we introduced Ross, who patiently answered the many questions girls abashedly scribbled on scraps of paper and passed up for him to answer. He was a great sport as he carefully answered such questions as: Why do some men prefer having dry sex (a common practice in Malawi)? Is it true that a girl cannot get pregnant if she has sex in the water? Is it true that if I man has sex with a girl on her menses that his penis will rot? Is it true that if a man is aroused then does not release fluid, he will become sick and die? Ross was also generous enough to consider Elizabeth and my various scenarios: If we are together and we are kissing, and you take my shirt off but then I want to stop, how do I say no? If we are together but we do not have a condom to use for sex, what should I do? If I am wearing trousers, do you have the right to have sex with me since I am showing the shape of my body? No matter the level of trust I have with my girls or the level of expertise Elizabeth has in the medical field, a Malawian girl child always believes men over women, so it was really valuable to have Ross there to reinforce our message that forced sex is ALWAYS rape and that it is ALWAYS wrong and that a man is ALWAYS capable of stopping.
It was a wonderful, productive, high-impact day and I am so grateful to my fellow PCVs for making it a success. The next step is to gather the materials for pad-making and help my new trainers as they take the girls in the community through similar sessions, provide support, and teach them to make pads for themselves, their sisters, and their friends.