For many adolescent girls around the world the onset of their first period means the screeching halt of their education. The simple lack of access (financially and logistically) to sanitary towels means a miserable time at school – mocking is rife. They miss up to a week of school of month. Many end up simply dropping out completely. In addition they have to contend with a host of myths and misinformation about that time of the month…
These girls, in a small village near Blantyre in Malawi, are part of a pilot project where mothers in the community are trained to make reusable pads that will be supplied to the girls for free. The hope is that it will improve their school attendance and their confidence.
At 16 Chifunilo Moyo seems wiser than her years. She’s somewhat reserved, speaks with a slight lisp and wears the trauma of her years in her eyes. She’s one of 5 children and lost both of her parents to illness before she was 10. She lives with her aunt. When I visit her at her village – a small cluster of mud buildings – she is wearing a bright red dress. In other parts of the world it might be worn by a girl her age going to a prom. In fact it may have been used for this already – Chifunelo’s dress is kaunjika – the Malawian term for second hand clothing that makes it’s way from the US and Europe to Africa where it is sold at reduced rates. Her dress makes for an odd choice to fetch water from the well, which she is doing when I arrive. But it is also one of the only pieces of clothing she owns...
Chifunelo first got her period at the age of 12. And after consultation with her sister decided to try and keep it a secret for as long as possible. “I was afraid of being laughed at,” she said. She still uses a nyanda (you can see her dislike of it on her face when she talks about it) or simply 3 or 4 pairs of underwear on top of each other to try (often not successfully) to prevent leaks. More and more she stays home at that time of the month. It’s just easier.
Chifunelo wants to be a soldier when she grows up. Despite the hardship of keeping her secret and missing school she says it won’t affect her dream. “I’m going for it, periods or no periods!” she says..