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 15 years old Evelyn Nyalugwe has a slight hint of pubescent acne that hints at her age. But her body language is that of someone much older, sitting with a stiff but proudly straight back as we chat. She is one of 5 children, although 3 of them have passed away. She’d like to become a bank manager when she is older. She admires the way they look – but also that they get a good salary. She loves to play netball.
Evelyn started her period at the age of 14. She’d never seen it but she had heard about it. “It was still a mystery” to me. She turned to her stepmother for help and to answer questions. Her stepmother gave her some pieces of material to use as a nyanda and asked her not to play with her siblings when she had her period as she was scared that they would laugh at her and teeze her.
Her school life changed dramatically once she started getting her periods. She used to have a near perfect attendance rate but now she misses a couple of days each month. She definitely can’t play netball when she has her period. “The nyanda is not reliable. I try to keep it a secret”, she says. It’s also hard to keep the nyanda dry after washing and often this can cause candida. Evelyn “doesn’t feel good about missing school,” and will ask her friends to share their notes when she returns but they often don’t. Although she vows to stay in school she does have a friend who dropped out in Standard 4, because she couldn’t take the bullying and teasing.
She says that some of the teachers are helpful to their cause – but reprimanding those who bully is not enforced. “We girls get together and advise ourselves on how to deal with it. We talk about the pads and how to take care of ourselves and get rid of the pain,” she says. Traditional medicine is often used to help reduce the pain from cramps.