Fifteen-year-old Fazira Cassim is back in school at Mtakataka Primary School in Monkey Bay, Mangochi District one year after being humiliated by her first menstrual period.
It was in the morning hours of April 22 last year and theteen was only 14 and in Standard Seven.
The day began like any other but not until womanhood challenged her hygiene for the first time. Stains of menstruation on her school uniform are what messed up her day.
However, jeers from male classmates is what pushed her to the corner, leaving her freezing as she could not take a step away from her position. It was a humiliating moment that seemed to last forever for her.
“And I could not contain my tears. Neither did I believe my fellow students could ridicule me like that. The embarrassment was too much to contain and I opted to stay home,” she narrates.
Fazila was out of school for a whole academic year.
Fazila is not the only victim. While many opt to drop out, menstruation keeps many teenagers out of class as they feel uncomfortable to be among men while menstruating. Others experience severe side effects to stay in public.
“I don’t go to school when having my periods and I miss a lot of class work,” reveals Maria Lasten, a Form Two student at Kapile Community Day Secondary School (CDSS) in the district.
For Mtakataka Primary School, lack of sanitary facilities was responsible for a number of dropouts last academic year. At least 16 girls at another primary school, Koche, located 30 kilometres from Monkey Bay, 75 students dropped out.
A 2017 Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST) report says about 4 percent of girls drop out in both primary and secondary schools due to poor facilities in schools.
In the report Mangochi tops primary school dropout rate at 7.7 percent followed by Machinga and Mwanza at 6.3 and Dedza 6.0 respectively with factors such as early marriages, teenage pregnancies, poverty and poor sanitary facilities for girls among others responsible.
According to the district education office, Mangochi has 287 primary schools which had 301 873 pupils in 2017 from which 25 249 girls dropped out for various reasons including lack of sanitary facilities in schools.
In the country, menstruation is associated with stigma and lack of resources which force girls to miss out on school during their periods with older girls dropping out. Rural schools are the most affected due to high poverty levels.
“Most girls use a local material called nyanda which is not effective as it can fall off when walking,” says Lafena Sailesi from Bamusi Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Chilipa in the district.
It is the fear that the nyanda will fall off that prevents adolescent girls from attending classes or standing up to answer questions in class when they are menstruating.
Of late, however, several initiatives are under way in all districts in the country.
Mangochi, just as others, is using mother groups to bring girls back to school.
“They convinced me to go back to school because they now keep sanitary pads at the office unlike last year,” says Fazila.
Now she and other girls can access pads free of charge when in need as they cannot afford to pay for them.
“The locally made sanitary pads sell at K1 000 each because they can be used more than once while those in shops cost around K500 each,” she explains.
A mother group chairperson at Koche Cecelia Banda says the girls now know how to make pads unlike in the past.
“Now the girls don’t need to worry about pads. They should just come to school as they will find them in the head teacher’s office,” says Banda.
With the availability of pads, Koche Primary School head teacher Paul Mangwalala says 62 girls are back in school.
“Availability of pads is helping the girls concentrate in class. Days of humiliation are over,” he explains.
His counterpart at Mtakataka Primary School, Teacher Fat Nkhoma equally acted quickly to erect a changing room at the school to combat dropout.
“Until this year, we had no private rooms for girls. But now communities and school have built a changing room at the school. We also bought pails and we provide cotton wool and soap in the rooms,” he says.
Mangochi district education manager (DEM) Joe Magombo says schools use 40 percent of the grant they are allocated to respond to various needs affecting them, including the need to build changing rooms.
“In the room soap, water and other things are provided for the girls to use. In addition, schools use mother groups to buy materials for sewing reusable sanitary pads or they buy pads and put them at the school,” says Magombo.
In the meantime, Fazila is working extra hard to make up for the time she lost at home as she prepares for next year’s Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education (PSCLE) examinations without the headache of pads.