By Emily Hamann
The Bellingham Business Journal
It’s a small thing, but it can change or even save the life of a girl in a developing country.
That’s what Celeste Mergens realized when she started Days For Girls 10 years ago.
Headquartered in Bellingham, Days For Girls International is global organization that gets menstruation supplies to girls who need them.
Days for Girls has reached more than a million women and girls in 124 different countries.
And its impact goes beyond just distributing reusable sanitary pads.
Women and girls around the world face a number of challenges while they’re menstruating.
In many cultures there’s a taboo around even discussing it, and women who are on their periods are seen as unclean, and aren’t allowed to do things like cook or sometimes even be around their families.
“If you don’t have what you need, and you don’t know what menstruation is, everything we relate to blood is illness, is pain, and in a lot of these places is untouchable for forbidden to be around,” Mergens said.
If girls don’t have the menstrual supplies they need, they may be forced to stay home from school.
Khayanga Wasike knows the impact this has on girls.
She experienced it herself growing up, and then saw the impact on girls in her class when she was a high school teacher in Kenya.
Wasike is from Lugari Sub County in western Kenya. Growing up, girls tried to hide it when they got their periods, for fear that they’d be ostracized by their family.
“You didn’t move, you told stories about your head aching like crazy, and if possible you’d just lay where you were with a headache,” she said. “But the truth was you had your period and you didn’t want anyone to know.”
Girls who didn’t have access to pads used whatever they could find — dried leaves, banana fiber or dried cow dung.
Eventually Wasike became a high school teacher, and saw the impact it had on girls when they had to miss school or feel distracted because of their period.
“It catches up with you,” Wasike said. “The things they learned when you are absent you don’t know, and you can’t ask.”
This puts girls at a major disadvantage.
“In schools for years and years only boys would take the top positions, the top 20 positions would all go to boys,” Wasike said. “And it would be the brightest girl, the genius girl who would come stumbling in somewhere behind the boys, just because of the [missed] opportunities.”
Even if the girls could come to class, they were distracted.
“Their mind was on where they were sitting, how were they going to stand up, how are they feeling, menstrual cramps and all that, and they couldn’t share with anyone,” Wasike said. “So even if they were in class they still couldn’t concentrate.”
Wasike did what she could to help the girls in her class understand what was happening to them, and help them manage it the best they could.
She looked for a number of nonprofits that could help, eventually finding Days for Girls.
Now she’s a country representative for Days for Girls, and goes into schools throughout Kenya, selling Days for Girls kits — which come with the reusable pads and other supplies girls can use to manage their period — and educating girls and their families about women’s health.
That education piece is key to breaking down taboos that exist around menstruation, not just in Kenya, but all around the world, Mergens said.
“The fear melts away and confidence is improved and they feel dignity where before they felt shame,” Mergens said.
Mergens first became aware of the need in 2008.
She was working with a non-governmental organization trying to help an orphanage in Kenya. After an election in the country, riots broke out and half a million people were displaced.
The population in the already-crowded orphanage surged from around 400 to around 1400. Mergens was busy trying to get the orphanage all the food and supplies it needed.
“In the process of asking how to fulfill that need, it came to me, have you asked what the girls are doing for feminine hygiene?” she said. “I had never thought to ask that even once.”
So she sent off an email, asking the question.
“I got an immediate answer and the answer was ‘nothing’,” she said.
The girls would have to find a piece a cardboard, and during the days they were menstruating they would stay in their rooms and sit on the cardboard.
So Mergens got to work trying to solve that problem as well.
She found an organization that could provide low-cost disposable feminine hygiene products.
“What I didn’t realize was there was no place to dispose of them,” Mergens said. The products quickly clogged the latrines and began piling up everywhere.
Disposable products also don’t provide a long-term solution.
“If we send money for pads and they needed food, in the future, they would use it for food,” Mergens said. That’s when she first started thinking about reusable, washable pads.
The design of the pad went through 28 different redesigns before getting to the current one being distributed. It’s especially designed for the conditions of the girls who will most likely be using it.
They wash with very little water. They dry quickly. They are made with brightly-patterned fabric, and the absorbent part looks like a handkerchief or a napkin, not a pad, so it can be dried out in the sun discreetly.
It also lasts for up to five years.
Making and selling the pads also provides some income for the people in country doing that work.
Days for Girls is a hybrid organization. It’s part non-profit, part enterprise. Days for Girls has many chapters in the U.S. and around the world, where volunteers make kits. But kit ambassadors, as Mergens calls them, can also start their own enterprise, selling kits to girls who need them in their communities.
“They get the training to do it, and it’s very much like being an Avon lady or a Tupperware lady,” Mergens said. “You go into schools and you teach Ambassador of Women’s Health training and the girls are able to buy the products at a price they are able to afford.”
The breaking down of the stigma around periods is a lot more effective if the information is coming from a local who lives in the community, Mergens said. Also, allowing ambassadors to start selling kits as a business empowers them to expand their reach as far as they can.
“That’s part of why we feel it’s so important that it’s entrepreneurial. Because it gives them ownership,” Mergens said. “It takes on legs of its own.”
For Mergens, it’s a matter of equity.
“Our world will never be all it can be unless we can all bring our full talent and abilities without barriers. It’s amazing something as basic as menstruation could have, for eons, been one of those barriers,” Mergens said.
“And it is thrilling to know that there is something we can do about that, and that’s something that’s going to shift in our lifetimes.”
Mergens already sees the impact that something as simple as a pad and some information can have on the lives of girls and women, and their communities.
“That’s one of the things I love about Days for Girls,” Mergens said. “There are so many things that are hard to change. This is not one of them.”