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An unexpected aspect of girls’ empowerment

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

When you think of the work of girls’ empowerment, you might not think of bathrooms. But a changing room and bathroom is exactly what Hope for Relief – a youth-led, grassroots organization in Malawi – knew would help keep girls in school.

Before the changing room was built, it was common for girls to stay home when they were on their periods. There is a stigma attached to being at school while bleeding and also the practical challenge of not having good material for pads.

“When I was just using cotton cloths, I would throw away pieces of cloths every month as they could easily wear out,” explained Suzen. Knowing this challenge, Hope for Relief started by sewing pads from quality fabric and absorbent material to hand out to girls in the rural areas.

In the last year (with some help with a SIA grant to buy sewing machines and provide training to mothers), 1,024 girls have received reusable pads to use for their periods. In total, the women have made and distributed over 4,000 pads!

Constructing a Safe Space

Having overcome the hurdle of quality pads, the next practical challenge was to provide the girls with a place to change their pads while at school. A typical bathroom in this part of Malawi would be a simple pit toilet. Not ideal for sensitive feminine hygiene.

With a grant from SIA, Hope for Relief hired two skilled community builders to built a sanitary bathroom at Chankhomi Rural Community Day Secondary School. Community members also contributed bricks and sand toward the constriction of the bathroom for free.

The design of the bathroom looks simple and actually has multiple purposes. The girls enter though a central door and then the space opens up into a change room and a toilet. The single door means that people don’t have to know if they are going into the changing room or simply using the bathroom.

Currently 94 rural girls are using the newly constructed bathroom. And they are attending school more days than before, according to attendance reports.

In addition to the construction projects, Hope for Relief also holds engagement meetings between parents, mother groups, teachers and village governance committees. They meet to talk about girls’ rights to education and to introduce community by-laws fighting against teenage pregnancies, early marriages, and girls’ school dropout.

At our meeting in July, the SIA Board approved another grant to enable Hope for Relief to construct five more changing rooms in rural schools that do not have boarding facilities.

Now, when you think of girls empowerment, you’ll know that bathrooms are part of the solution!

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