Saving lives from Covid-19 through a community based organisation in Malawi

Article, 01.10.2020

Tiwale Community Based Organisation, based in Lilongwe, Malawi had been supporting disadvantaged schoolgirls and women by training them in vocational skills such as sewing and manufacturing various cloth material including reusable sanitary pads before the outbreak of Covid-19 at the beginning of 2020.

Saving lives from Covid-19 through a community based organisation in Malawi.
Groups of women have diversified their design skills to create the much-needed washable facemasks to protect the local communities from the spread of COVID-19. © Tiwale Community Based Organisation

Now, the small community based organisation has groups of young women and mothers that have diversified their design skills to create the much-needed washable facemasks to protect the local communities from the spread of COVID-19.

Several young women and mothers from the Njewa district of Malawi, with support from the Embassy of Switzerland through a small grant, have taken the initiative to start manufacturing thousands of facemasks in the coming weeks.

As well as filling a demand for masks at a time when there is a regional shortage, the groups’ work is also acting as an income stream for women who usually struggle to make enough to feed their families.

The community based group is made up mainly of women young and old who normally work to support their community by manufacturing reusable menstrual sanitary pads and other clothing materials as per the community need.

Due to a stigma surrounding girls’ periods in many parts of Africa, young girls often miss several days of school a month during menstruation. By providing young girls with these pads, Tiwale is able to manage their menstruation in a more effective way. They can continue to attend school and reduce the negative impact on their education.

Contributing to the community’s COVID-19 response

Through Tiwale, the group of women and girls have planned to manufacture up to 24’000 washable facemasks. The masks are being distributed to the most vulnerable in Malawi including local health staff doing community outreach work.

The masks are part of Switzerland’s broader Covid-19 awareness campaign in Malawi and the region, with training being provided on how to put on and wear a face mask properly and how to clean them so they are safe to reuse.

Following a recent donation of the washable masks to Ethel Mutharika Hospital in Lilongwe, one of Tiwale’s group member, Joyce Kanyongolo, said she is delighted to be playing her part in the COVID-19 response.

“We are very thankful to Switzerland for the support we have received to make these washable facemasks.  As a mother with responsibilities to my family, I am happy to be playing a role in responding to the coronavirus crisis by making facemasks for our community”, she said.

The threat of COVID-19 in Malawi and the region

Chmba Chilemba, the young founder and director of Tiwale Community Based Group, says facemasks, if used properly, can play an important part in protecting the population, especially if worn by people with symptoms.

“Despite the slowing of the virus in Malawi and the region, there is a possibility of a second wave that can be devastating if people are relaxed. This is particularly so for low-income households that need to be better tooled to respond if cases begin to rise again.”

She added: “A large second wave in Malawi will put enormous strain on the resources of poor households and health care staff. Globally, the demand for PPE is at unprecedented levels, so the availability of facemasks for community use is greatly appreciated.”

Switzerland’s COVID-19 response in Southern Africa

Since the beginning of 2020, Switzerland has availed US$3.3 million for Covid-19 response in Southern Africa reaching over one million vulnerable individuals with COVID-19 community outreach and public health messaging, capacitating frontline health care personnel, immigration, customs and other support staff in high-risk areas to respond better to the pandemic.

Although cases have remained low in Malawi and the region (with the exception of South Africa), the provision of simple measures such as washable facemasks through small community based organisations has had a positive impact in reducing new infections at community level.