Celeste Mergens has discovered that a $10 contribution or contributing a few hours time can infinitely transform a woman’s life and provide her lifelong opportunity and dignity.
Mergens was trained in global sustainable development and found her “calling in life” when she began working with a non-governmental organization that partnered to improve conditions in a 400-child orphanage in the corrugated iron slums in Dagoretti, Kenya. Mergens fell in love with the children the first time she saw them and began working to improve living conditions.
She was making great strides. For example, where the orphanage previously spent upwards of $200 a day to cook and prepare meals, Mergens advised and raised funds for the construction of “rocket stoves” that reduced that cost to about $11-12 a day. The extra money could now be used for additional food and other expenses. Mergens envisioned herself doing this long-term.
Then, in 2008, the country was rocked by post-election violence. She got a call from the orphanage alerting her that not only had the orphanage swollen to 1,400 children, but they had been two days without food.
It was unimaginable. The rooms already held bunk beds pressed up against each other, with two to three girls sharing one bed. They pleaded for her help.
Mergens, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, went to bed praying to know what to do to get them desperately needed supplies, petitioning and pleading until, overtaken by exhaustion, she fell into fitful sleep.
At 2:30 a.m. she awoke — wide awake — with the question pulsing through her mind: “Have you asked what they are doing for feminine hygiene?” She had never thought to ask. Nevertheless, this simple question would not leave her alone. Surprised, she ran to her computer to inquire, writing orphanage directors to ask how they met feminine hygiene needs.
With computers and the Internet generally accessible only in Internet cafes, she did not expect an immediate response. Yet that is what she got. The reply was: “Nothing.”
She wrote back, asking them to elaborate. The answer came. During menstrual cycles, the girls wait in their room and sit on a piece of cardboard on their bed for three to four days. If they can, they arrange for friends to bring them food and water.
Mergens was stunned.
She searched the computer to see how this condition is addressed globally. She found nothing. She knew this was a cause she had to take up. Initially, she realized the implications. If a girl misses three to seven days a month while menstruating, that translates to up to two months less schooling per year. As a girl falls farther behind, she often fails or leaves school early. In Africa, one additional year of schooling after age 12 dramatically improves the national economy and opens economic doors and opportunity to women. Education and knowledge continue to be key to a better quality of life for people around the globe.
Mergens also knew she could not send money for feminine hygiene products because if there was a need for food or shelter, the girl, her family or the orphanage would choose those things over feminine hygiene products every time. She knew too that she had to be sensitive to local cultures and traditions. So she began searching, experimenting and listening to the women on the ground.
Her first attempt to solve the problem led her to a company that provided disposable feminine pads for $200 for 500 girls for one month. Done. With a trip scheduled, Mergens arrived in Kenya three weeks later to observe results. As wonderful as it was to have pads, she realized that “disposable” in Western countries is possible. In Kenya, the orphanage’s fences were soon lined and stuffed with pads and the pit latrines were quickly clogged. Disposable was not the answer. Insertable hygiene products were also not an option due to cultural prohibitions.
Washable, reusable pads seemed the solution. She and others began sewing white kits for girls. However, the pads were bulky and shifted forward when walking. And because they were white, even when washed and hung out to dry, they were still stained. This was taboo and soon women were not properly drying or using their kits. After trial and error, and intense dialogue with the women using the kits, a workable solution was achieved.
The Days for Girls feminine hygiene kit now contains a pair of underpants and a thin shield with a water resistant polyurethane liner that snaps under the panties so that it does not shift forward. It also contains eight flannel, tri-fold reusable pads that can be layered as necessary. Also included are a washcloth, a bar of soap for cleaning purposes, and two plastic bags for clean and soiled pads. The pads themselves are brightly colored and patterned and when washed, any slight stain is difficult to distinguish. They are square-ish and resemble a washcloth when hung out to dry. In poverty-stricken countries where water is at a premium, they are a perfect solution. The kit, if properly cared for, will last a woman from two to three years.
Days for Girls, the nongovernmental organization founded by Mergens, is now operating in more than 70 countries, supported by over 170 chapters of women who construct and assemble the kits and go to points around the globe to distribute and instruct women in feminine hygiene, how to use the kits and how to make their own.
Even with such phenomenal success, the need for more is enormous. Wherever Days for Girls team members go, there are always more women begging and pleading for kits than workers have on hand.
However, this is but the tip of the iceberg as to the impact Days for Girls has had and continues to have. Many women and young girls had no understanding of menstruation. It was taboo to speak of it. This led many women to perceive themselves as dirty or unclean and to be treated as such in their communities.
Mergens delights in telling these women, “Without periods there would be no people,” explaining that menstruation is a natural process in the female body fertility cycle. Women’s eyes light up as they begin to understand the beauty and magnificence of the female body in this process of procreation. It has also led to heart-wrenching and validating conversations, and changes with regards to domestic violence against women, rape, the trafficking of women and children into sexual slavery, and female genital mutilation — introducing to women the idea that a woman has the right to defend herself against sexual violence, to be sovereign over her own body.
Mergens also understands that because improvement of the human condition is a joint activity, there can be no privileging or antagonism between genders. There is a real need to listen, to not judge, to educate, to learn from others and to work together to address longstanding challenges and to consider changing some long-term cultural practices in countries around the world.
How did this transformation begin? It began with prayer, a persistent thought, inspiration and acting on that inspiration. It began when one woman recognized that a loving Heavenly Father knew and understood a compelling need among women globally and sought individuals’ help to address that need.
Thousands of women’s lives have been forever transformed. Whoever imagined a $10 feminine hygiene kit could provide a woman with dignity, hope and opportunity? Yet it has and it does.
For more information, visit the Days for Girls website at daysforgirls.org.
Kristine Frederickson writes on issue-oriented topics that affect members of the LDS Church worldwide in her column “LDS World." She teaches part-time at BYU. Her views do not necessarily represent those of BYU.
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