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You never know when a great moment of inspiration is going to hit you. It is very often when you least expect it.
That was certainly the case for Celeste Mergens, founder of Days for Girls International. For Celeste that life-altering moment came at 2:30am, when she awoke from a sound sleep at her home near Seattle, Washington.
Celeste and her husband Don had been doing work in Africa for years with the Clay Foundation, and Celeste was working with the local orphanages in Kenya, a cause that she was convinced was her true calling. But that all changed at 2:30am that fateful morning when she woke with the seemingly random thought in her head, “Have you asked what the girls do for feminine hygiene?” While the answer to that question is obvious in our western society, it occurred to Celeste that she had no idea what the girls in the African orphanage did for their monthly cycles.
Celeste immediately sent an e-mail to the Director of the orphanage, and as luck would have it he was at an internet café at the same time and he replied right back. His answer was the sobering moment when Celeste realized just how much we take for granted our own access to feminine hygiene. His answer was, “Nothing. They wait in their rooms.” While that was a shocking answer in itself, it wasn’t until Celeste further explored the true ramifications of that statement that she realized how big a problem this in fact is in the developing world.
In many developing countries, where many citizens are largely living in abject poverty, the people (men or women) have little or no education about the biology of our bodies, and therefore they have no knowledge of the fact that our monthly cycles are in fact a healthy, natural part of our reproductive system. Instead, in societies which have long histories of superstitious beliefs, the female cycle is very often viewed as a curse. The girls are relegated to staying in their rooms and waiting out their cycles, not only because it is often believed that they are dirty or impure during this time, but in several instances Celeste learned that the villagers actually believed that the village well would dry up if the girls left their rooms. Imagine the stigma with which girls are stained in these cultures.
Now think about your routine walk down the feminine hygiene aisle at the grocery store (men, if you have a wife, mother or sister, chances are you have done this task as well.) and then re-read that sentence. “The villagers believed that the village well would dry up if the girls left their room.”
If that in itself is not horrifying enough, the cycle of poverty that further ensues out of this belief system is the true tragedy that results from these girls having no access to feminine hygiene. In this Kenyan village where Celeste was working, education is extremely important as they understand it is the only possible path out of poverty. Not only do families save all of their money to try to send their children to school, the children also have to pass rigorous exams to advance to the next class level. That is as it should be, but imagine what happens to the girls when they have to miss school for one week each month in order to hide in their rooms, often just lying on cardboard and waiting for their bleeding to stop. They fall behind the boys.
Over a full year, they miss so much school that they very often do not advance to the next level. And imagine if a family only has limited funds for education and they have to choose between sending their sons or daughters to school. Naturally they choose their sons, who will not have this problem of missing school once a month.
Consider for a moment that we are largely speaking about developing nations where there are very few, if any, women in positions of leadership or power. Imagine the disadvantage with which girls start from the early age of puberty. In these instances, they are very rarely able to catch up with their male counterparts, and they begin to fall further into poverty. And because the families now have a daughter that has little chance of earning a good, paying job, very tragically they are often forced to sell their daughters into the sex trade. At that point their lives are largely lost to the viscous cycle of abuse and violence. According to the World Health Organization 72% of girls in Africa are sexually abused before age 12 (source: daysforgirls.org). And this cycle is in part precipitated by and largely exacerbated by the fact that girls have no way to address their feminine hygiene needs. Imagine that.
Celeste knew she had to do something and this is when Days for Girls International was born. Celeste’s organization began working with donors to build a supply of feminine napkins to bring back to the girls. The first time out on this new mission, with the goal of getting feminine napkins into the hands of as many girls as possible, Celeste and her team began with disposable napkins at the cost of $200 per month for all 500 girls in the orphanage. However, they knew that if they continued to send funds for hygiene, that it would likely be used to feed the children. Instead they began working to bring sustainable, washable hygiene products to the girls.
When Celeste and her team returned to Kenya three weeks later to check on the progress of their project, they were horrified to find that the chinks of the chain-link fence surrounding the orphanage property were filled with soiled feminine napkins. They went on to find the sides of roads littered with napkins and many of the latrines overflowing and clogged with napkins. They knew they had a potential environmental disaster on their hands and this was the confirmation that they needed to create a more sustainable solution. Much in the way that cloth diapers have made a powerful resurgence among environmental circles here in the west, they knew that they needed to create reusable, cloth feminine napkins.
This is when the true magic began and when Celeste began to see that the work that she was convinced was her true calling, was in fact not. Instead it was a stepping stone to what truly was her calling, a calling she never could have imagined, a calling that came to her at 2:30 in the morning.
Celeste began working with a dedicated team of volunteers to sew the reusable feminine napkins. After various iterations and experimenting with different types of fabric, and after incorporating the feedback of many women, they came to what is the current day pattern, which is available on their website. The pads are made of a fabric shield which holds the pads in place, and the liner of the pads are created with absorbent flannel pads, flannel being one of the quickest-drying fabrics and thus allowing for easy cleaning and reusing. The girls are also given a pair of underwear into which they can place the pad. After all of the trial and error to come up with the perfect feminine hygiene solution, each girl now receives their own re-usable kit which contains the following materials:
– 10 Absorbent flannel pads
– 2 Shields (holds pads in place)
– 1 Washcloth
– 1 Pair of underwear
– 1 Bar of soap
– 2 Gallon-sized zip baggies
– 2 Safety pins
– 1 Drawstring bag to contain it
Not only are these kits reusable, but they have been designed so that the gallon-sized zip baggies can serve as a mini-washing machine, which allows the girls to wash their flannel pads themselves, with very little water. And perhaps most importantly, these kits have opened up a doorway for Celeste and her team to facilitate open, educational conversations with parents, teachers and community leaders about feminine hygiene and women’s issues related to the prevention of HIV and other STDs, sexual abuse and safety. Additionally, in the nations where the kits are most needed, Days for Girls has been able to train local trainers to teach their own communities how to make their own kit components.
What was once a taboo subject has now been brought to the forefront in a safe and informative manner, and most importantly the women themselves are now speaking up and sharing their new-found knowledge with other members of the community.
In addition to gaining access to feminine hygiene and with it greater access to education and opportunity, even more importantly the girls have gained knowledge and with it power. The girls have become empowered and with this new-found inner strength, they too will now have the chance to make a difference in the world.
Incredibly in less than three years since Days for Girls International was founded, and with the help of thousands of volunteers who sew the pads and prepare the kits, Days for Girls, along with the help of partner organizations, has delivered feminine hygiene kits into the hands of 50,000 women in 22 countries on 5 continents. Days for Girls has not only contributed to keeping girls in school, but they have also given women the courage to stand up to abuse and incredibly they have even seen a reduction in female genital mutilation.
Days for Girls International currently has the mission of reaching 400,000 women by the year 2013.
Do you want to help contribute to this important mission? Here are the many ways in which you can help:
– Make tax-deductible donations for kit supplies
– Sew pads, shields or drawstring bags (throw a sewing party with all of your sewing buddies!)
– Donate wash cloths, underwear and small soap bars (save the bars of soap from your hotel stays!)
– Donate gallon-sized Ziplock freezer baggies
– Join a volunteer adventure to Africa and elsewhere to hand out these kits and educate the community
– Notify Days for Girls of projects that need kits to distribute
– Tell others about this important issue
– Partner to adopt an international enterprise
And remember, when you have that “random” epiphany at 2:30am, although it may seem like a crazy idea, pay attention. It may just be an idea that can change the world.