Menstruation matters: how toilets are keeping girls in school in Malawi

Could you imagine being on your period without access to a toilet or clean water? For 1.25 billion women around the world, this is a reality. It’s a particularly acute problem in Malawi, where 1 million people (6% of the entire population) lack access to any kind of toilet and are forced to relieve themselves in the open. Through our work with local leaders and communities, United Purpose is changing this – and our sanitation projects are vastly improving life for many rural women.

Image by Toby Richards for United Purpose

Image by Toby Richards for United Purpose

In a recent project, UP constructed eight purpose-built toilet facilities in rural schools in the Mulanje and Thyolo districts in Malawi. As is the case in all of UP’s toilet-building projects in schools, each facility included a safe, sanitary and private space for female students to change and dispose of their sanitary products.

“There is significant evidence to suggest that sanitation facilities increase students’ – particularly girls’ – attendance at school, improve academic performance and reduce drop-out rates,” says Becy Ainsworth, Project Support Officer at UP Malawi.

One primary school in Mulanje District is a case in point. As one of the schools to benefit from UP’s sanitation projects, its 1,795-strong body of students is now comprised of 923 boys and 879 girls. Previously, just 20% of its student population were girls.

“Before the sanitation facilities, there was a very high drop-out rate among the girls, mainly because of the lack of safe and private spaces for girls to manage their sanitation needs during their periods,” Becy explains.


Above: The old pit latrine at this primary school in Mulanje District had collapsed (left). UP's project replaced it with a safe, private and purpose-built toilet block (right).

A school-led initiative

Initially, it took a while for the students to get used to using the new toilet facilities. Some girls reported being embarrassed about carrying water from the tap to the toilet (a 70m walk) because the boys would “ridicule” them.

To address this, the head teacher of the school worked with the School Management Committee and the community’s Mother Group to resolve the issue. Together, they took the initiative and raised the funds to install taps and a shower in the toilet facility so that the girls would no longer need to fetch and carry water.

My performance in school has greatly improved - Ivy

Read Ivy's story:

Now that the new toilets have been built, Ivy Nazombe is doing much better in school

Now that the new toilets have been built, Ivy Nazombe is doing much better in school

Ivy, aged 15, is a pupil at the primary school. In her own words, she explains what the improved toilet and water facilities mean to her:

“Life at school is far simpler now because we do not need to draw water from the tap 70m from the facility, because we now have a shower and tap in there. This has maintained our privacy and stopped the boys from making fun of us. I am no longer shy or embarrassed to use the facility because no one will know if I am menstruating.

“The water supply at the facility means that I can wash myself if I need to, and the improved sanitation means that I will keep on using it rather than skipping school and going home when I’m on my period. I used to do this when there was nowhere to change.

“My performance in class has greatly improved as I can be in school every single day. Before, my friends didn’t use the facility because of the boys making fun of us, but now they are using it and we are all doing much better in school.”


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Woman farmer with peas, food, livelihoods, agriculture, with baby foot (1).JPG