"When I started, I had no idea this was going to be a movement. I thought I was simply meeting the needs of these girls."
Talk about a grassroots movement. Celeste Mergens’ nonprofit organization, Days for Girls International, has triggered a global one. Since 2008, it has created access to washable and sustainable feminine hygiene products for nearly 800,000 women and girls worldwide, with help from a sprawling network of chapters and teams. And its microenterprise model is empowering many of the women to pull themselves out of poverty.
Mergens’ solution to this seldom-discussed universal feminine need makes it possible for girls to attend school uninterrupted while on their menstrual cycles and for women to go to work. From New Orleans to Nepal, Uganda to Guyana, she and her teams are sidestepping cultural taboos and helping women better understand their own bodies and discover ways to keep themselves safe.
“I don’t go into a slum and say ‘you poor, poor, people’ because I know, those are just circumstances…” she says. “You can spend a lot of money shaming people and not getting the results you seek.” But when you honor their wisdom and strength, says Mergens, you give them a stake in the solution and a seat at the table.
Mergens, a mother of six and grandmother of 15 who has been married for 35 years, is warm and gracious, and her interactions with staff and volunteers in DfG’s modest storefront headquarters in Bellingham, Wash., offers a glimpse into why people are drawn to her.
Mergens started on this journey while volunteering with an orphanage in Kenya in 2008. She was shocked to find out that many of the girls there, unable to afford disposable pads, sat on cardboard for the duration of their monthly periods, often missing school for days. And the problem wasn’t limited to Kenya. Across the globe, girls of lesser means resort to a range of solutions — rags, bed stuffing, even cow dung. Some are sexually exploited in exchange for money to purchase supplies.
“All over this world women carry a burden just by virtue of a basic biological function, crucial to the continuation of all of us,” Mergens says. “And the only reason this continues is we haven’t been willing to talk about it.”
Disposable products weren’t the answer because disposing of them was a problem in so many places. Then it came to her: a washable pad. Her product, now in its 28th revision, is absorbent flannel pads and the leak-proof shields that hold them in place. They come as part of a kit that also includes underwear, washcloth and soap and can last a girl up to three years. Volunteers for more than 1,000 Days for Girls chapters and teams sew the pads and shields and assemble the kits for distribution in over 100 countries. "When I started, I had no idea this was going to be a movement,” says Mergens. “I thought I was simply meeting the needs of these girls."
Christine Khamasi, who grew up in Nairobi, dreaming about being a doctor until at age 14 she became pregnant after being sexually exploited in exchange for feminine pads. Khamasi had been sewing rags together to make her own feminine products and jumped at an invitation to attend Days for Girls University in Uganda. The organization started the training program in 2012 to teach people how to make the product and educate them around its use.
Khamasi has since started three microenterprises and sold or donated over 2,000 kits. “I can now walk with my head high because of Celeste and her organization,” she says in a phone interview from Kenya. “My community has been able to keep girls in school. My life has changed because of Days for Girls."