Grace Kapatuka | July 23, 2023
Anita Chiphiko is a 42-year-old mother who decided to talk with her daughter, Temwa, about the changes teenage girls experience during puberty, a subject that has been difficult to talk about if not taboo. Temwa has had monthly periods for the past two months, but was afraid to tell anyone. Mrs. Chiphiko believes it’s important that parents feel free to discuss the changes their teenagers are experiencing. She says: “I explained to the girls that what has been happening to them is puberty, a stage where children transition into adulthood. Even though the girls looked so shy to contribute to the topic, I continued to explain to them what else they should expect as they continue to grow up.”
It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon in Chilanga village in Kasungu district, about 110 kilometres from Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. Anita Chiphiko sits on the veranda of her house with her daughter and two other teenage girls.
The 42-year-old mother is explaining the changes teenage girls experience during puberty. She says: “I was inside the house and I overheard my child and her friends discussing the changes that are happening in their bodies. I decided to join them so that I can help them understand why they are experiencing these changes.”
Temwa is Mrs. Chiphiko’s daughter. She has had monthly periods for the past two months, but was afraid to tell anyone.
She says, “I was shy to tell anyone, even my friends. I thought such issues are not to be discussed openly with anyone, hence I kept quiet.”
Fifteen-year-old Anna Kachipande is a friend of Temwa. She says she doesn’t remember when she started experiencing changes in her body.
Anna explains: “I have told my friends about the changes in my body. I have noticed development of breasts, growing of pubic hair, and the onset of menstruation. However, I feel uncomfortable to discuss this topic with my friends.”
She felt embarrassed the last time she tried to talk to her friends about it, so vowed never to discuss the subject with anyone. But when Temwa told her that she was experiencing similar changes, the two girls began to talk.
Although Temwa and Anna confided in each other, they had no idea why they were experiencing these changes. Anna says, “We gathered courage and asked my mother to help us, but she referred us to my aunt because she wasn’t comfortable to talk about the subject with us.”
Mrs. Chiphiko believes it’s important that parents feel free to discuss the changes their teenagers are experiencing.
She says: “I explained to the girls that what has been happening to them is puberty, a stage where children transition into adulthood. Even though the girls looked so shy to contribute to the topic, I continued to explain to them what else they should expect as they continue to grow up.”
Mrs. Chiphiko adds: “For quite a long time, opening up on issues about puberty and sexual [and] reproductive health has been a taboo in my area. As a result, young girls and boys grow up without knowledge about the changes their body experience.”
She says this lack of knowledge has contributed to an increase in teenage pregnancies in the area.
Kelvin Sosola is a teenage boy from the same village. He says that, after noticing some changes in his body, he asked his uncle to help him understand what was going on.
Kelvin says, “My uncle only told me that I am growing up. He only said that, and no further information was provided. [So] I started discussing these changes in my body with my peers.”
Walusungu Gondwe is the youth coordinator at Shorten the Distance, a youth organization that is concerned with the increase in teenage pregnancies, a trend that has contributed to the high school dropout rate in Kasungu district.
Mr. Gondwe’s organization started an initiative aimed at breaking the silence around puberty and sexual and reproductive health issues among parents, guardians, and children.
He adds, “We are also trying to combat child marriages and teenage pregnancies which the district has been experiencing due to the culture of secrecy”
The organization brings parents and their children together so that boys and girls are equipped with the right information to make informed decisions.
He adds, “Since we started our initiative in 2019, parents in the area have started opening up to talk with their children on issues of puberty, sex, and reproductive health.”
Temwa is one of the beneficiaries of the Shorten the Distance initiative. She says, “I have learned a lot, especially through the youth clubs the organization introduced at our school where we freely discuss puberty issues affecting teenagers.”
This resource is undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada as part of the The Innovations in Health, Rights and Development, or iHEARD, project. The project is led by a consortium of: CODE, Farm Radio International, and MSI Reproductive Choices and implemented in Malawi by FAWEMA, Farm Radio Trust, Women and Children First UK and Maikhanda Trust, Girl Effect/ZATHU, Viamo and Banja La Mtsogolo.