Around the world, girls miss school because of stigmas about menstruation, or because they don’t have feminine-hygiene supplies. Days for Girls wants to change that.
It’s late May in Calgary, and Celeste Mergens, the founder of Days for Girls, is capping off a remarkable month.
She has just flown from Australia to Canada to attend back-to-back events honoring her 10-year-old nonprofit, which provides reusable sanitary pads and economic opportunities to women in poor communities. The number of volunteers for Days for Girls now tops 50,000 in more than 1,000 chapters in 17 nations. And Meghan Markle, the new duchess of Sussex, has just given a powerful voice to the issue of menstrual health, highlighting it in her royal biographyand encouraging everyone to avoid period shaming.
“We are growing exponentially,” Mergens says. “This is the day we worked for.”
Founded in 2008, Days for Girls is one of a number of nonprofits that seeks to destigmatize menstruation and provide access to sanitary products so that girls can continue to attend school when they have their periods. In India, 23% percent of girls drop out of school because they lack access to toilets and sanitary pads. In rural Nepal, girls are sent to live in small, isolated sheds while menstruating. And in Ethiopia, a study found that 56% of girls were absent from school specifically because they did not have access to sanitary pads.
Days for Girls came about after Mergens traveled to the slums outside Nairobi, Kenya, while doing humanitarian work for a family foundation. After visiting an overcrowded orphanage, she emailed the assistant director, asking what girls did for feminine hygiene. “It turned out that they would sit on a piece of cardboard for days,” she says. “I knew we needed to change that.”
FIGURING OUT HOW TO ADDRESS THE PROBLEM
It took Mergens more than a few tries to figure out how to best address the problem. At first, she approached a nongovernmental organization and asked for donations of disposable pads for about 500 girls at the orphanage. She soon learned there was no place to properly dispose of the pads. “The chain fence adjacent to the latrines was filled with disposed-of pads that were rolled up in every little link of the chain link,” she says.
The next idea was to create a reusable white pad. “Volunteers sewed this first design,” Mergens says. “Three of them sewed till their fingertips bled.” While the basic idea was a good one, the pads didn’t fit well–and worse, after washing, they showed stains. “The girls explained how taboo it was to hang anything out menstrual-related [to dry],” Mergens says. She and her volunteers came up with a trifold, washable pad made with colorful fabrics that look more like washcloths. “We kept listening, and the design today is actually patented,” she says.
Working with a small group of volunteers, which soon became an army, Mergens began to distribute kits–containing washable pads, panties, a washcloth, and soap–to girls in Kenya. The work soon spread to other parts of Africa and Asia.
Ten years later, the organization works all across the globe, including the U.S. “We got a call first from New Orleans,” Mergans says. “Communities and schools group said, ‘You are talking about over there, but we have this need.’” In New Orleans alone, an estimated 3,200 girls lack adequate feminine-care supplies. The group also supplies products to U.S. prisons.
Continue onto Fast Company to read the complete article.