In Malawi a packet of sanitary towels can cost a whole day’s pay, and girls often miss school because the cotton strips they use instead are inadequate. Charlotte Ashton met a woman in Blantyre who’s come up with a solution.
It’s a 14-year-old girl’s worst nightmare. You’re standing in front of your class when giggling erupts from the back and everyone’s pointing at your behind. With despair you realise your sanitary pad has leaked and an embarrassing circle of blood has appeared on your dress. I clearly remember the anxious checking of my school skirt as a teenager. You’d pull aside a close friend: “Have I leaked?”
But the worst never actually happened and I don’t remember seeing it happen to any classmates. Because in the West we’re blessed with effective, disposable, affordable sanitary protection – the vast majority of us can afford pads or tampons every month.
Here in Malawi, that’s not the case. The sanitary pads in the shops cost 500 Malawi kwacha (75 cents; 50p) per pack. That’s nearly a whole day’s pay at the minimum wage – and you really need two packs per period.
Imagine spending two days’ wages every month just on sanitary pads.
To find out what women do instead, I head to a school in a township on the outskirts of Blantyre, Malawi’s second city, to talk periods with a group of teenage girls.
“Tell me,” I venture. “We’re here to talk about sanitary pads. Do any of you use the disposable ones?”
A row of shaking heads then a brave hand goes up.
“We take pieces of old chitenge and tear them into strips.” Benku is 15 and bright-eyed. Chitenges the pieces of cotton material Malawian women wear around their waists. “Then we fold them over and put them into our underwear.”
“That must be uncomfortable,” I ask.
“Yes,” she agrees. “Sometimes I get sores on my legs where the material rubs. And sometimes the chitenge falls out!
“That happened to me once in class. The boys were laughing. I was so embarrassed.”