We all complain about our periods. Some of us have used it as a recurring excuse to get out of things – dance class, PT, or even school. Hormone imbalance, cramps, PMS, you name it; we can rattle off from memory because the pain is real. But what we don’t realise, and what we definitely take for granted, is the fact that we have the choice to opt out and stay curled up in our blankets at home, with none the wiser for it. But there are thousands of young girls out there who actually have to give up their education or professions, due to their monthly flux.
Image : shutterstock
Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? You’d be surprised.
In Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, a sanitary napkin can determine whether a girl stays in school. This is because the price of a napkin in Malawi is equivalent to a whole day’s pay. As a consequence, women often resort to unhygienic measures like using cloth, toilet paper, or mattress foam as substitutes, which often cause infections and rashes.But more importantly, it does not serve the purpose.
There is nothing as fragile as a growing teenage girl’s confidence. So, when these materials fail to absorb the blood and it becomes uncomfortably apparent in the middle of the school-yard, it is no surprise why girls would choose to stay at home instead.
According to UNICEF, one out of 10 girls in Africa misses or drops out of school entirely due to menstruation. Considering that it is a choice between a meal and a sanitary napkin, one can almost understand why.
It’s a vicious cycle. A poor economy results in a necessity becoming a luxury. And, due to this starving economy the women of the area have to lose out on education, their only road to independence, for not being able to afford a necessity.
In October 2016, Julia Gunther, a Berlin-born photographer, travelled to Africa and spent three and a half weeks observing the condition of women in the region.She told Huffington Post that she never realised that what the West takes for granted so easily can determine the future of a young Malawi girl.
“Menstruation is indeed a taboo. But not so much in that no one talks about it, but more that women are ridiculed and discriminated against while on their period. As a result of this, and the fact that many cannot afford to throw away sanitary pads, they stay home from school or work,” she said.
However, every cloud has a silver lining. As an initiative of the ‘Green Malata Entrepreneurial Village’, set up by the Children’s Fund of Malawi, which supplies and encourages local teenagers with sustainable tools and training to make a living, young women have been learning to tailor and sell reusable sanitary pads.
Gunther, who was in Malawi to observe and attend the Green Malata, reported that these teenagers had come up with a solution to the menstruation problem in the region. They had created the ‘School Girl Pack’, which contained three pads and a pair of underwear for $3.50, and the revolutionary part of this pack is that all three pads are reusable (post-washing).
This pack allows Malawian girls to use these pads for extended periods of time.With the affordable rates of these packs, these girls can now attend school while menstruating without having to worry about purchasing a new pad for each day. The reusable pads in the pack are both brightly coloured, comfortable, and standardised. The girls who cannot still afford these School Girl Packs receive them through donations.An excited 15-year-old Malawi girl, Blessings, told Gunther that this pack was the answer to all her problems.
“I always had to use cloth or something. When I had my period I was worried about going to school. I would stay at home. Now I can go to school and not worry,” she said.
For the Malawian women, this initiative truly is ground-breaking. Having had to rely heavily on their male counterparts for most of their livelihoods, these women are finally getting the opportunity to determine a better future for themselves. Simply put, these packs allow them the option to stay back in school and complete their education. Education, in turn, is their ticket to good jobs. Along with this is the fact that the young women producing these reusable pads are streamlining the greatest sense of entrepreneurship in the region.
“For me, the main aim with this story is to illustrate how a seemingly incongruous object like a sanitary pad can significantly impact the lives of young women. That something we take for granted in the West can make or break the future of someone in a developing country,” says Gunther.
Considering the plight of these Malawi girls, it’s important to acknowledge our privilege.Where we are blessed with a multitude of options, opportunities, and, most importantly, choices, there are others across the world who are aching to just go to School.