When menstruation begins, adolescent girls either absent themselves from school or attend classes in discomfort due to inadequate sanitation facilities at the institution.
Some girls have, according to our snap survey at Chipongo Primary school in Mzimba South Education Division, dropped out of school owing to the same devastating problem, which has been at the school since its inception in 1986.
It is, as one learner Temwa Chirwa says, a nightmare for girls in during menstruation to attend classes at a school that lacks basic sanitation facilities like water sources.
“After using the toilet during our menstrual cycle, we are required to clean ourselves properly before we can go in class, otherwise we can smell badly and learning with boys in such a state is humiliating,” she said while emphasizing on the need for a school to have water access within reach.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have water sources within the proximity of our school premises,” narrated the 16 years old Temwa, now in Standard Eight.
“To fetch water, we walk a very long distance from here. We get tired and as a result we don’t fully participate in lessons.”
“The water that we fetch at such an exhausting distance,” she added, “is not safe as it is contaminated with numerous wastes including human and animal wastes.”
The water facility referred to by Temwa is a stream that snakes about 3 kilometers away from their school. Apart from human beings, the sole stream is also dependable to wild animals.
The long distance to fetch water is also, according to Temwa, one of the factors that has led to most girls dropping out of school and just settle for marriages within the community.
“Imagine, waking up around 3AM to go to the same stream to clean plates, bath and fetch water for drinking at home. We go to school already tired and if I am to be honest with you, we get nothing from the lessons,” she said. ”
Temwa just like other adolescent girls at Chipongo Primary Cchool is adamant that should she fail the primary school national examinations, it will be her right time to answer the frequent calls of her suitors.
Head teacher for the school, Ordiny Chipoka, conceded that, as an institution of basic education, they experience numerous challenges due to inadequate sanitation facilities. He revealed that the school that has about 1000 learners has never, since inception, had potable water sources close by, a thing he said, is compromising sanitation at the institution.
Explained Chipoka: “We experience high absenteeism everyday especially of girls who feel uncomfortable learning at an institution that has no sanitation facilities. A lot more have also dropped out of school due to absence of water sources. This has greatly impacted on our performance as a school because we teach without coherence when other learners are often absent.
He then ask for well-wishers to: “Consider helping us with at least a borehole so that things can normalize at our school. Otherwise where our learners fetch water is really very far that if they go to fetch water there, they come back very tired thus some resort to dropping out of school.”
Primary education advisor for Chikangawa zone, Martin Shaba, confirmed about the problem saying his office received the concerns on the issue from the school management committee and has forwarded them to relevant authorities for action.
He further said, the provision of water facilities at Chipongo primary school, will not only help learners but also members of staff who equally endure the same long distances to fetch water for their domestic use.
Malawi is technically a water-rich country with 20% of its area covered by surface water. Ironically, according to a published document by Water Aid, about 1.7 million people have no access to water and about 10 million people have no access to improved sanitation.
A United Nations recent report also estimates that nineteen percent of schools in Malawi do not have an improved water source, resulting in students drinking from unimproved sources during the school day.
Because access to clean water is closely related to access to adequate sanitation, many schools without access to clean water also struggle to provide adequate sanitation facilities.
Only 4.2% of schools in Malawi have handwashing facilities that include soap, while the rest of the schools provide either inadequate hand- washing facilities or none at all.
On the other hand, girls who are menstruating have higher absenteeism and dropout rates, which is attributed to a lack of “girl-friendly sanitation facilities in schools.
The problem is shared by learners at Sangiro Primary School which is in Hangalawe zone, Chilumba to the south of Karonga district. The school which has about 600 learners has only two toilets, one for learners and the other one for teachers.
Just like at Chipongo Primary School, they equally have to endure a distance of about 3 kilometers to access water from a borehole or 2 kilometers from the lake which is at least close by. But the latter source contains contaminated water.
One of the teachers who spoke to us on condition of anonymity, disclosed that the school has been operating without sanitation facilities since its opening in 1976 by the Seventh Day Adventist missionaries who settled in the area.
Said the teacher: “We have a situation where learners of opposite sex use the same toilet. That is standard 1 to 8. As for water, it’s a personal responsibility. Every learner has to bring water at least in a bottle for washing hands after using the toilet.”
Karonga district and Chilumba in particular, being prone to cholera and other waterborne diseases, schools like Sangiro primary, are too much exposed to disaster.
According to information gathered, some parents withdraw their children from schools during Cholera outbreaks, on grounds that poor and inadequate sanitation facilities in such institutions can cost lives of their younger ones.
One of the school management committee members at Sangiro, confided in our reporter that, in a bid to improve sanitation at the school, they agreed to be sourcing funds from learners as development fee so that they can construct additional toilets at the school.
“We demand that each learner must be contributing K100 as development fee for us to improve sanitation facilities at the school. The two toilets you have seen are the products of the same initiative,” he said.
“As for water facilities,” he added,” We don’t think we have the capacity to procure materials for drilling a borehole. So learners still have to endure the long distance, unless if the government can intervene quickly to bail us out of the problems.”
Grace Chikaya is Standard Seven at the school and she described her daily experience at as devastating. The 17 year old described sharing one toilet with boys as inhuman and humiliating.
“I usually don’t use the toilet. I cannot use the same toilet with boys and worse still some learners who are younger than me. It feels so inhuman and out of our tradition as Malawians,” she said.
“During my menstrual-period,” she added “things are worse and for that reason I don’t come to school.
“As a girl, proper and adequate sanitation facilities are a must during this period and at a school like ours, you risk your dignity to small children when you are not properly cleaned up and start smelling. Everyone knows you are menstruating.”
The Malawi Government, according to ‘BALLAD BRIEF Marrissa Getts’ online analysis, has fallen short in its efforts to increase access to water in rural areas.
Although lack of resources often becomes the scapegoat for lack of access to water, the lack of skills and professional capability also inhibits access to clean water.
In district councils, few personnel have received adequate training on water resource management. Another drawback is corruption, which is fast depleting already meagre resources in the country.
The World Bank estimates that worldwide, between 20% and 40% of money intended to develop water infrastructure is lost through corruption.
Although no aggregate data exists for water-related corruption in Malawi, corruption scandals in the public service and water sectors are common.
It is a common knowledge that corruption breeds in almost all steps of the water project, including vendor selection, cost estimation, and post-construction management.
On the other hand, it is also common in Malawi for politicians or the wealthy to influence water point construction and placement to gain votes.
Such interference means that politically connected areas may have an excess of boreholes, while poorly connected areas have few to none.
When all is said and done, it is worth noting that large corruption scandals within the government or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) often lead donors to withdraw their support, causing significant cuts in essential public services, including water services, which disproportionately hurt the poor Malawians, mostly in rural areas.