The beauty of the objects, the colouring, the patterns, the artistry, at a glance seem to remove them from what ought to be an unremarkable routine and practical function.
In rural Malawi, however, there is a subliminal beauty, too, in the prettily crafted reusable sanitary pads as they are part of an effective strategy to give women a better chance in life and free them from the taboos that limit them.
As Nick Schonfeld writes on Julia Gunther’s website: “In Malawi, a sanitary pad can determine if a girl stays in school, if a woman keeps her job or if she manages to grow enough food to feed herself and her family.”
It is sobering that girls or young women who cannot afford the prohibitively expensive and hard to come by disposable pads, can miss out on as much as 20 percent of their school year, or risk being fired for staying home from work. And if they cannot afford the disposable products, Schonfeld writes, many women resort to “crude, homemade alternatives such as rags, banana fibres, mattress foam or toilet paper, improvised and often unhygienic quick fixes which lead to embarrassing leaks and recurrent infections”.
In a recent feature on Gunther’s work, Priscilla Frank, arts writer on the Huffington Post, noted that, in Malawi “a single sanitary pad costs roughly a day’s pay”.
There’s another element to the reusable pad; they are designed, tailored and sold by young women, further enhancing the slow but sure drive to reverse gender discrimination. Each “School Girl Pack” featuring three washable pads and a pair of underwear sells for around $3.50.
Gunther, well-known to Weekend Argus readers for her photo essays on topics ranging from the Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit to lesbians living in Khayelitsha (all part of her ongoing Proud Women of Africa series), heard about the Malawian project from a friend.
“It focuses on trying to create sustainable projects which not only help the children in the short term but also try to better their position in society - in the case of the reusable sanitary pads, enabling girls to stay in school, while also providing a reliable source of income. This seemed to me a good example of the right kind of aid,” she said.
The project is run by Green Malata Entrepreneurial Village, set up by the Children’s Fund of Malawi, a Dutch charity, to teach children, mostly orphans between 14 and 19, tangible skills such as tailoring, welding, or carpentry.
“Most can’t afford to go to school, or have been forced to drop out, leaving them with little means of survival in a country that ranks as one of the poorest in the world,” Gunther said.
It is a society in which, for women, the effects of poverty are exacerbated by gender discrimination.
Gunther noted that “in Malawi, as in many countries, menstruation is a taboo not so much in the sense that nobody talks about it, but that women are ridiculed and discriminated against while on their period”. For those who can’t afford disposable pads, the only option is to “stay home from school or work”.
Berlin-born Gunther started out as a cinematographer, but in tandem with stills photography. It was on her first visit to South Africa in 2008, while working for a production company in Cape Town, that she channelled the power of the fixed image into an extended project to celebrate the strength, pride, resourcefulness and stamina of women in Africa.
Her latest Malawian venture was a bit different, yet “for me, the spirit of the pictures remains the same: a positive, aspirational approach to a serious subject, something that Africa needs more of and, at the same time, a counter to the image of Africa and Africans as being helpless”.
Gunther acknowledged that while the girls she photographed were “very shy, and found it hard to talk about menstruation and how they dealt with it”, this had “as much to do with their age, as with the topic”.
Malawi’s constitution guaranteed women equal rights, “but in reality women remain disadvantaged in many aspects of daily life”, particularly in lacking access to education, employment and healthcare, and often being dependent on husbands, fathers or brothers.
This made schooling a primary route to empowerment and self-reliance, underscoring the value of reusable sanitary pads in “giving women the independence they deserve”.
Gunther added: “For me the main aim with this story is to illustrate how a seemingly incongruous object, like a sanitary pad, can significantly impact the lives of young women. It’s an item we take for granted in the West, but it can make or break the future of someone in a developing country.”
For more information, or to help, visit www.childrensfundmalawi.com or facebook.com/ChildrensFundofMalawi/