“No Action is still an Action”
By Alex Hallifax & Jess Tomlinson
Last year I reconnected with Jess Tomlinson, an old school friend who had spent her gap year, and many months since, in Africa. She told me of the limited access the women and children she worked with had in regards to sanitary products and education around menstruation. In the following article Jess explains her observations and understanding of what can only be described as a systematic period poverty in Malawi, Africa. Due to Jess’s repeated visits to Africa, she was able to witness the beautiful developments these women were gifted through resources and education.
With women’s rights movements being currently prevalent in the ‘western’ world, it is essential that those women and girls in developing nations without a voice can still be heard. As a New Zealander, it’s not unusual for me to stand at the supermarket pissed off at the prices of the sanitary items. Seldom have I considered my accessibility to these products as a blessing. Rarely do I think about how lucky I am that my period has not forced me to drop out, get married before 18 or stay home from school for a whole week. In many nations around the world access to sanitary products is nearly impossible.
Malawi, a small landlocked country in sub-Saharan Africa stays true to it’s nickname ‘the warm heart of Africa.’ Malawi is currently ranked one of the poorest nations in the world. Statistics surrounding Malawians’ income varies, one source stating that the average yearly income is just NZD$1,183. With the majority of the population living rurally, access to sanitary products is virtually impossible. Without access to any sanitary pads, girls have had no other choice but to miss school when they are menstruating. Previously there has been no access to bathrooms or running water in rural villages in Malawi. This has forced women and girls to miss a week of school every time they menstruate, leaving them struggling to keep up with the pace of school and falling behind. Many girls have had no choice but to drop out. The completion rate of primary school in Malawi is sitting at only 46%, with the majority of those who do not complete school being female. While there has been vast improvement, it remains one of the lowest completion rates in Southern Africa.
My connection with Malawi began 4 years ago, I was living and teaching in Nkhotakota district in a primary school, the equivalent of year 6 and 7, although ages vary widely. I noticed that there were diminishing numbers of girls through years 1 to 8. The thing is, primary school is more or less free in Malawi, so it was not that the males of the family received priority financially. It was something far simpler, something that comes with an easy solution. Girls were not attending school because they had their periods and were unable to obtain sanitary products to keep this taboo topic hidden. And this wasn’t the 1960s, this was 2013.
Some innovative charities have created a solution to keep girls in school and create a much-needed micro-business for women within the village. Villagers have been given sewing machines and training to create sanitary pads for those in need. They use locally sourced materials to create reusable and washable pads. Further, they have installed African style toilets as well as accessible water pumps for cleaning purposes. This is helping girls to remain in school throughout the year and complete primary school.
I visited a village an hour away from Malawi’s capital Lilongwe with World Vision Malawi. Women and girls talked to us about the improvements the pads had on them personally. One girl discussed how she had previously dropped out of Year 6 because she had begun her period at school, she had bled through her cotton school uniform and was so embarrassed that she did not return. She spoke about how grateful she was to receive reusable pads; it had helped her confidently re-enroll in school. Another mother spoke about how happy she was to be in the group making the pads, stating that “we are happy to help these girls go to school because we were unable to get far in education.”
Gender equality is something women and men are fighting for globally but the issues so many Malawian women are facing today has a simple solution, access to education and resources, it’s a fundamental right. There are many ways we are able to change the fate of the women in these developing nations. Formulating discussion and awareness can go a long way to realizing the many injustices still being faced. It is important to recognize that in situations like this, no action at all, is still an action.
If this story inspires you to donate and help more women in need around the world head to Days for Girls and check out their amazing work, or click here to donate to Days for Girls in Christchurch. Or, if you would like to donate a menstrual cup to a New Zealand woman in need, head on over to MyCup to donate through their accessible donation page. It is often easy to forget the privilege we are afforded simply granted through access and understanding of tampons, pads and menstrual cups, regardless of prices. There are still many, many women around the world still fighting for this same luxury of control.
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This piece has been edited
All photos taken by Jess