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Empowering Girls in Malawi

Lucy Nkhoma shares her experiences of changing the lives of girl and women by improving menstrual health through her work with the Malawi Girl Guides Association and ActionAid.

My name is Lucy Nkhoma. I was born into a family of eight children. My father, who was engaged in cross-border business, died when I was only seven. After that, embracing the African culture of the extended family, I was raised by my aunt. I grew up in a village in Salima District, not far from Lake Malawi, where I also went to primary school. I was 14 years old when I finished primary school but most of my classmates were two years older. I started my periods when I was 13 but most of the others had already started at 12 years old.

Within and around that area, menstruation was one of the biggest reasons why girls missed classes and dropped out of school. Many girls did not have access to menstrual pads or cotton wool and often soiled their dresses or school uniform and boys made them a laughing stock. I was privileged as I was provided with cotton wool. In most schools there is nowhere to dispose of the soiled cotton wool or pads, you have to take it home. But I was more concerned for my fellow classmates who did not have anything to use. Most of the girls I was with at primary school did not continue to secondary school because they had fallen pregnant, when they were 16, 17 or 18 years old. As a result they got married. This situation sparked my interest and passion in empowering girls through education. I wanted to help by breaking the menstrual taboos and myths which shame girls all over the world. The shame comes in because of negative mindsets about menstrual health.

To achieve my goals, I joined the Malawi Girl Guides Association. Their programmes aim to empower women through non-formal education. The activities include sewing reusable pads made of cloth to help increase confidence in girls. As I continued with my work, I was introduced to a menstrual cup which I believe is the best innovation to overcome problems of menstruation. A menstrual cup lasts for 10 years and is safe, discrete, and cost effective. I have been able to run sessions about menstrual cups with women in very rural areas, such as mothers right in the middle of Liwonde National Park in the south of Malawi. The mothers were fascinated by the cups and wanted to have them, not just for themselves, but also for their daughters and granddaughters. They recommended that girls should have access to menstrual cups from their very first period. I have also had the opportunity to train girls and women at the Dzaleka Refugee Camp. The sessions here were so interesting, taking place in many different languages. The faces of the women were keen and full of interest, and they too wanted menstrual cups for their personal use. They came from Rwanda, Congo, Sudan, Somalia – many places where there is conflict.

All the information sessions I have delivered concerning menstrual health start with a moment of sharing personal stories of our first period, what happened to us, what age we were when we started menstruating, who we told and how we felt. This part breaks the silence and the tension about the whole discussion – girls and women become more open to sharing and talking about menstruation. I have heard insights like, “When I first had my period I thought I was dying”. Others thought it was a horrible sickness they were suffering from or that they had a cut. All these experiences occur as they did not know what periods were and they were not prepared for them in advance. This is because many mothers in these communities do not talk about menstruation with their daughters.

Within our training, we address some of the myths and taboos: “Girls must not add salt to things like gravy and vegetables when they are cooking”; “Girls are not supposed to talk to boys when they are menstruating in case they get pregnant”; and “If you have sex while menstruating, the man will die”. Certain foods, such as eggs, are also prohibited when menstruating, and in the northern part of Malawi, girls are kept in the house for at least one whole week when they have their first period. It is fashionable here for girls to get into a relationship with boys for the benefits they can gain. The boyfriend is expected to provide the girl with presents and money to buy anything she needs. In return, the girls feel they are supposed to submit themselves to the boys sexually. Many girls get pregnant, or HIV/AIDS, from this behaviour. If they had menstrual cups, they would not have sex just for money to buy disposable pads.

My passion for menstrual health management and awareness of menstrual cups, led me to organize the very first menstrual cup camp on World Menstrual Health Day (31 May 2017) in Lilongwe, Malawi. We adopted the Girl Guide way by singing Guiding and traditional songs around a campfire, and playing games to make us feel comfortable and free. The girls were so happy – we ate, danced, played, and joked together! Another weekend, we camped with 120 Girl Guides from Mulanje, Dedza, and Salima. All these girls are at risk of dropping out of school. Half already have children, dropped out of school and have now come back to school. My hope is that now, with knowledge of menstrual health and cups, they will remain at school.

Through my interest and passion about menstrual health, I have now secured a job with ActionAid Malawi as a menstrual cup facilitator. I run menstrual health information sessions and organize the distribution of menstrual cups. I am very happy because this will help me achieve my goal of making menstrual cups known and available to every menstruating girl in Malawi.

Menstrual Cups: Safe, comfortable, and convenient

A menstrual cup is a small container made from medical-grade silicone, which is inserted into the vagina to collect menstrual flow. The cup holds about the same as three pads or tampons and cannot be felt when inside. Hygienic, safe, comfortable, and free from smell, it is emptied every few hours and washed. Each cup costs about 10 USD but is reusable and lasts ten years, so a cup saves the cost and pollution of the 2,500 disposable pads or tampons a woman would use in that time. The silicone is hypoallergenic and contains no additives, perfume or chemicals, so there are no side effects. It is approved by the US Federal Drug Agency and used by women in over 50 countries throughout Europe, North and South America, Asia, Russia, and Africa (including South Africa, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi).

Lucy Nkhoma was born 33 years ago in Malawi and lives in the capital, Lilongwe. She is deputy Chief Commissioner of Malawi Girl Guides and works for ActionAid Malawi as a menstrual cup facilitator. She trains Girl Guides, schoolgirls, rural women and refugees in menstrual health and how to use menstrual cups.

Find out more about the campaign to educate girls in Malawi about menstrual health and help with the distribution of menstrual cups here:

See more about Lucy Nkhoma and the training she does here or click on the video at the beginning of this piece:

Video copyright: SafeHands for Mothers, 2018

Top photograph copyright: Janie Hampton

Bottom photograph copyright: Mandu Reid

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