Celeste Mergens didn’t intend to launch a movement that would reach over 1.5 million women and girls in 144 nations on six continents. In fact, she was only trying to help an orphanage outside Nairobi feed their children. When she further asked what the girls were doing for menstrual hygiene, she got an unexpected answer: “Nothing. They wait in their rooms.” It turned out these girls would sit on a piece of cardboard, for days. No going to class. No leaving.
The year was 2008, and the term “period poverty” hadn’t yet become mainstream. The western world still had much to learn about the disparity taking place regarding feminine hygiene.
Mobilized Into Action
Seeing the need for action, Mergens founded Days for Girls International (DfG) in Whatcom County, thus embarking on a life-changing journey to address how societies and cultures stigmatize menstruation.
Over the last 11 years, Mergens and more than 69,000 volunteers, including over 120 in Bellingham, have transformed DfG into a global movement, bringing dignity, education, and greater opportunities to women, girls, and communities around the world.
DfG provides kits that contain hand-sewn, washable sanitary pads and underwear, as well as soap and other hygiene essentials. Each kit is proving to last up to five years.
“The first prototype was hand-drawn on a napkin on the hood of my car,” Mergens recalls. “Since then, our patterns have changed 29 times in 11 years, and have been awarded a U.S. patent, all due to the genius of our users and their feedback. They work well because we all listened and responded.”
From the very beginning, these washable menstrual kits have come with community health education. The education program has gone through 60 reiterations to make it easier to talk about this taboo subject. The organization has also created 148 social enterprises in 30 countries, creating jobs and local leadership.
“The stigma around menstruation is starting to quake,”Mergens says. “But we haven’t shattered it yet.”
By developing global partnerships, cultivating social enterprises, mobilizing volunteers, and innovating sustainable solutions that reduce stigmas and limitations for women and girls, Mergens answered her original question and now has her eyes on the future.
“Advocacy is a big deal,” Mergens says. “Advocacy with countries all over the world to commit to making menstrual and health education a standard of health curriculum, and helping girls have the supplies they can count on to be confident and stay in school during menstruation. It’s working.”
In the U.S., DfG is also advocating to eliminate taxes on menstrual products, part of a larger gender-related tax issue known as the pink tax.
The global community has awakened, and Mergens’ efforts are not going unnoticed. Last year, she was selected as the 2019 Global Hero Award recipient, presented by Global Washington. She was also selected as Women Economic Forum’s “Woman of the Decade,” and just received the Power Together Award on behalf of DfG at the Women Leaders Global Forum in recognition of her work to end period poverty.
To learn more about Days for Girls or how you can help,visit daysforgirls.org.
To read about more women who are making a difference in your community, check out our Lifestyle section here.