By Mayme Lefurgey, Safe World Global Correspondent and Lesley Gittings, Tilimbikile
Photo credits: Lesley Gittings
Menstruation Leads to Missed School Days
Shelia is a 17-year-old girl in Nyama village Malawi who aspires to be a nurse.
However, she has difficulty keeping up with her studies as each month she misses class due to her menstrual period. Statistically, once a girl in Malawi starts menstruating, she is likely to miss three days of school every month.[i]
Abject poverty, gender inequality, and inadequate access to education are daily realities for many of the Malawi’s citizens. Women and girls are amongst the most vulnerable as the feminization of social issues is rampant in all corners of this small East African nation.
In Malawi, a sanitary pad can determine if a girl stays in school. Such a simple item, that many women take for granted, has proven to have an enormous impact on girls' lives in Malawi and across the globe.
Access to Safe & Comfortable Hygiene Products is Difficult
Most girls in Malawi don’t have access to safe and comfortable menstrual hygiene products.
Not only are disposable pads too expensive for most Malawian girls and women, they are also widely unavailable in rural areas where 85% of the country's population lives[ii].
Some women and girls result in using coarse and poorly absorbent local fabrics, which are uncomfortable and can lead to health concerns and discomforts.[iii]
Furthermore, adequate privacy and sanitation of restrooms is a key barrier to girls attending school while menstruating.
Completion of Education Compounded by Other Issues
Once a girl reaches the menstruating age, her likelihood of dropping out increases.
Compounded by issues such as school feels, domestic work pressure at home and a lack of electricity to study at night, not being able to attend school while menstruating makes completion of education that much more difficult.
Unfortunately, Malawi sees severe gender inequalities. Girls and women are oftentimes unable to access an education and neglected from the formal economy. This compounds the issues of vulnerability to abuse, early pregnancy and HIV.
In response to this incredible injustice, Tilimbikile was created by the Forum for African Women Educationalists in Malawi (FAWEMA), with support from volunteers Lesley Gittings and Mayme Lefurgey as well as the World University Service of Canada (WUSC).
Tilimbikile, a word from Malawi's national language of Chichewa is used as an encouragement to work hard and remain strong. We believe that Tilimbikile captures the resilient spirit of Malawian women who are dedicated to improving their lives and bettering their nation as a whole.
The project works through groups of female volunteers called ‘Mother Groups’ who carry out interventions in schools to support girls to work hard at school, stay in school, and return to school if they have dropped out.
The project is run as a self-sustaining, income-generating activity. The pads are made from local materials and are washable and reusable, making them an environmentally friendly and cost-effective alternative to disposables.
Mother Groups are trained on how to manufacture the pads and on basic business skills.
Pads Economically Empower Women, too
Given that Malawian women need pads, too, the Mother Groups sew and sell the pads for a profit. Part of the profit goes to the women themselves, with the aim of economic empowerment.
The remainder is used to provide pads to school girls in need. Since the Mother Groups work to help girls be retained and perform in school, they know the girls who need the pads the most.
Thus, Tilimbikile is a project that supports girls to stay in school while they are menstruating and at the same time provides business opportunities to Malawian women.
We believe that combining the issues of girl child education and the economic empowerment of women enhances the project’s potential to confront issues of inter-generational poverty and create lasting effects for development.
The project was piloted last year with great enthusiasm yet currently faces resource challenges.
Tilimbikile is seeking to promote awareness online about menstruation as a barrier to education and women’s economic empowerment in Malawi in order to raise public consciousness and funds. Organizers are currently seeking partnership, funding, grant information, and sewing materials as well as volunteers willing to contribute online or in the Lilongwe region.
Can something as simple as a sanitary pad support a girl to stay in school and a woman to become economically empowered?
Read more about Tilimbikile:
FAWEMA website: http://fawemalawi.com/
Youtube video: http://padsforempowerment.com/pad-project/the-project/