The question that would change Celeste Mergens’ life came to her at 2:30 a.m. in what she describes as a “gasp moment.”
It was 2008, and Mergens had been raising money for an overtaxed orphanage in Kenya, helping to provide food and water for children affected by election violence that had gripped the country earlier that year.
On the night of the gasp moment Mergens says she went to bed worrying about how to get the orphanage more food but woke up suddenly with something else on her mind: “I wondered, ‘What are the girls doing for feminine hygiene?’ ”
The answer, when she got it over email, was: “Nothing. They wait in their rooms.” Girls stayed in the crowded dormitories for days while they waited for their periods to pass.
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Mergens immediately sent over cases of sanitary napkins only to return to the orphanage three weeks later to find disposal had become a problem; used pads were choking up the pit latrines.
That was the moment Days for Girls International was born. The Lynden, Whatcom County, nonprofit now provides portable, reusable menstruation kits to girls in over 60 countries.
In the years that followed, Mergens, who has worked in international aid and development for years, would learn that girls in many of the world’s poorest communities lack access to feminine hygiene products.
She heard stories of girls desperate to keep what might be their only dress clean but terrified of being isolated during their periods — especially if it meant missing school. She met girls who used bark, feathers and even trash to absorb menstrual blood. She even heard cases in which men used sanitary napkins to bribe girls for sex.
And all that fueled Mergens as she strove to make the ideal pad for those girls.
“Our first kits … they were embarrassing” chuckles Mergens, remembering that their first products were white — a silly choice for reusable material certain to become stained and left to dry outside in view of others. Other early models took too much water to clean, an impractical system in places where water is scarce.
Today the kits are basically eight reusable pads, a pair of underwear and a simple method for washing all of it. Mergens calls it a system that is, “culturally, physically and environmentally relevant for cultures all over the world.”
What might be even more important is that it’s easily replicable.
Not only has Days for Girls distributed over 100,000 kits on six continents, it’s also set up sewing “chapters” around the world to help produce and distribute the kits.
One such group was hard at work in a church rec room in Snoqualmie earlier this week as members of the Church on the Ridge congregation hustled to sew 100 kits for a trip to a partner church in Swaziland this June.
“These are the awesome bags they come in,” explains Michelle Mumford rifling through piles of colorful cloth chosen to be both culturally sensitive (no camouflage, no animals, no bugs) and attractive (girls often wear the kits as little backpacks).
Mumford, who has been part of the “Swaziland sewing team” since it formed in March, says she likes the project because it’s about “women loving women.”
But it’s also helped Mumford and her daughter Madeleine — who is almost 12 and who will also be traveling to Swaziland to help distribute kits — talk about menstruation without embarrassment.
“The whole point is to break it down and be able to talk about it,” she says smiling at Madeleine as she folds a pile of cotton liners.
In fact Madeleine says she might consider using a kit herself … when the time comes.
“This is such an opportunity to talk to daughters about becoming a woman without shame,” says Mergens describing the, often multigenerational, sewing groups “To talk about this great cycle of humanity that they are a part of.”
Challenging taboos is not the only way that Days for Girls is helping women in the United States. Mergens says the organization has served communities in Appalachia, New Orleans, Arizona and Detroit. It just recently started distributing kits to homeless populations here in Washington.
Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist, www.seattleglobalist.com, a blog covering Seattle’s international connections. Sarah Stuteville: email@example.com. Twitter: @SeaStute