The monthly burden doesn't end there. The girls explain how they get up early or stay out late to wash the used strips - in a quiet moment when no-one's around to see. Hanging them up to dry in the sun would be too public a display of an issue that's taboo here. So the girls find a dark corner inside to dry their rags. And then the answer that I somehow found saddest of all: "Do your mothers help you?" Their heads shake again: "No," says Benku's friend. "My mother asked my aunt to explain everything to me when I got my first period." Another girl was given an old chitenge and a lesson in what to do by a neighbour. A third was sent to her grandmother's for a week. This monthly struggle has been the same for generations. But unlike their mothers, aunts and grandmothers these young women have a champion, who's determined to tackle the problem. Trinitas is a tall, vivacious 31-year-old researcher at Blantyre's College of Medicine. When six boys but only two girls turned up for a focus group she was running at this school, she asked the teacher where they all were and was told they'd excused themselves that week because they were menstruating. And that's a whole other tragic side to this issue: girls often don't leave the house while they're bleeding. "So how many days of school are you missing every month?" I ask the group. "Five, five, six, four, five," they tell me. Trinitas remembers this from her own schooldays and is angry that another generation of girls is suffering. She's the daughter of a single mother and studied at a basic government school. Yet she beat the odds and made it to university - thanks, she says, to her mother's insistence on the value of education. With that in mind Trinitas bought an old treadle sewing machine and started making reusable sanitary pads from fabrics available locally. She's been doing market research at the school and the girls have all tried out her pads. The feedback is resoundingly positive. "They're so easy to wash!" says one girl. "The top layer is lovely and fleecy so they're comfortable," says another. Trinitas's challenge is to get capital investment in this chronically poor country - enough to scale up production and bring down the price so it's low enough for the average Malawian. The girls are clearly excited by the new freedom this product could afford them. "The wings and the poppers mean I can move around as usual," chirps one. "We can do skipping rope and everything." And with that I'm reminded that these schoolgirls deserve better than a week of discomfort and humiliation every single month.
Two years ago, when Amy Peake was leafing through a magazine she saw an image that shocked her. It showed thousands of refugees queuing for food in a bombed-out street in Damascus. In the foreground stood a woman, and for a split second she thought, "What if I was her? What if my children were there? And what if I got my period?" Then her husband showed her a BBC News Magazine story about an Indian man who had invented a machine to produce cheap and hygienic sanitary pads after realising his wife, and millions of other Indian women, used rags. He didn't want to sell the pads, he wanted women to make and sell their own. Peake immediately thought: "That machine should be in the refugee camps - and if it isn't, perhaps I should take it there." So that's exactly what she's done. SOURCE: BBC Magazine