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 biography and 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.
A personal connection
For Mergens, the work has special significance. She comes from difficult circumstances. Born in Oklahoma to a family that faced poverty, she spent time living in a car and often went without food. She also was abused. And at age 7, she was raped. “Having been through that, I know how easy it is for us to blame ourselves,” she says. “And to leave feeling more vulnerable and absolutely tainted by it.”
In Kenya, shortly after Mergens began to distribute the first kits in 2008, she learned that many girls were being sexually exploited in return for disposable pads. “They explained, ‘thank you so much, because before you came, we had to let them use us if we wanted to leave the room or go to class,'” Mergans says. That was “the price they were paying for our silence around menstruation.” That realization cemented Mergens’s commitment to Days for Girls.
Critical to the organization’s work is education to remove the shame, stigma, and silence around menstruation. In places like Nepal, girls are told, “You’ll bring ill fortune, that you are untouchable, that people will become ill if you’re anywhere around them,” Mergens says.
Volunteers are equipped with a curriculum to explain the body’s natural function. Simply talking about periods is a huge step forward in many cultures. “These Days for Girls kits become a doorway to brand new conversations,” Mergens says. It’s an “opportunity to talk about things that were completely off the table before.”
A turn in the spotlight
Days for Girls is not the only organization committed to menstrual health management, but each take a slightly different approach. In Mozambique, for instance, the nonprofit Wamina provides low-cost, reusable sanitary pads, and hosts menstrual health workshops. In India, the Myna Mahila Foundation employs local women to manufacture sanitary pads and sell them door to door in Mumbai’s slums.
Myna Mahila is one of seven charities recently chosen by the duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, to receive donations from her wedding to Britain’s Prince Harry. Days for Girls is already benefiting from the spotlight on menstrual health. “It is huge she did that, on so many levels,” Mergens says. “We are really grateful. This means we’ll just get there faster.”
In terms of the competitive landscape, Days for Girls believes its organization is different from others because of its two-pronged approach to tackling the issue. Aside from volunteers who distribute kits, Days for Girls also trains women to to sell menstrual-health products and provide education in their own communities. The group researches supply-chain options in various countries, to make costs as affordable as possible. “It’s like the Avon ladies of menstrual hygiene,” Mergens says. The enterprise model is currently operating in 14 countries, and women who sell the kits (wearing bright orange Days for Girls uniforms) make wages that allow them to pay for food or send children to school.
“We do a lot of looking at best practices of other organizations, and ask them what’s working for them,” Mergens says. “I wish I knew of an organization doing it this way.” She estimates that Days for Girls has already helped over 1 million girls through its kits, which last up to three years, but that the enterprise model will ensure that girls and women have long-term access to menstrual care products.
“Our goal is to reach every girl, everywhere, period,” Mergens says. “There are so many things that are hard to change in this world. This isn’t one of them.”
Colleen DeBaise is contributing editor and podcast host at The Story Exchange, a nonprofit media company that provides news, videos, and tips for women entrepreneurs.