For young women in Malawi, their first period means scavenging for some spare cloth, clean paper or even a banana peel–anything to create a facsimile of a pad or tampon. In countries like Malawi, something as commonplace as a period or sanitary protection alters the course of a woman’s life. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world with approximately 50% of its people living below the poverty line. Moreover, for most households, a single sanitation product is equivalent to a day’s working wage. Simply put, it is often not even a consideration to purchase menstrual sanitary products when the compromise would be forfeiting affording food or water. As a result, period poverty in Malawi is prevalent.
COVID-19 has exacerbated period poverty in many countries, but ActionAid is fighting for women’s rights and the end of period poverty in Malawi. ActionAid is an international charity that emerged in 1972 and works at the frontlines with women and girls living in poverty around the world. It has been working to provide aid in Malawi since 1990.
Period Poverty in Malawi and Education
The inability for women and girls to access sanitary menstruation products has led to an increase in infection, disease and a lack of education among women in developing countries. Only 29% of girls stay in school up until reaching Standard Eight of their education.
Around 50% of school-age girls in Africa do not have access to sanitary products. When young women are able to go to school without the hindrance of insufficient sanitary products, the quality of life for women and families in developing countries increases exponentially. Women’s education has a positive correlation to decreased fertility rates, infant mortality rates and maternal mortality rates. A UN study ascertained that educating women serves as a critical factor in determining childhood survival rates. In short, tackling period poverty can in turn reduce other side effects of global poverty.
ActionAid’s Work to Eradicate Period Poverty in Malawi
In April 2020, ActionAid donated MK150 million to districts in Malawi that COVID-19 hit the hardest. It also donated hygiene materials such as sanitary towels, soap and clean undergarments. For the past few years, ActionAid has spearheaded projects that train women and girls how to make their own hygienic and reusable sanitary pads. Poverty causes period poverty but community stigmas regarding menstruation can also women and girls to miss out on school. In fact, UNICEF has estimated that one in 10 African girls of schooling age does not attend school during menstruation. Young women in Africa find it difficult to continue school or attend school during their period due to the burden that comes with having to constantly wash and reuse unsuitable sanitary protection.
In addition to equipping women and girls with the skills necessary to make their own sanitary pads, ActionAid also facilitates girls’ clubs and safe spaces in schools that provide information and assistance. ActionAid safe spaces exist across Africa and provide a private space where women can receive medical help, hygiene kits and emotional support. ActionAid has changed the lives of women and girls in Malawi for the better. When asked how ActionAid has impacted her, one 17-year-old Malawi girl replied, “I am able to stand in class without being conscious of what is behind me and can even play netball. I’m really happy and [ActionAid] helps a lot.”
While ActionAid is not the only organization combating period poverty in Malawi, the work it has accomplished has already transformed the stigma. Moreover, it has improved how people in Malawi treat menstruation and women’s rights.
– Nina Forest