It was 2:30 a.m. when Celeste Mergens first thought of a question that would later change her life.
“How do you ask what the girls are doing for feminine hygiene?” she asked the audience when speaking recently at the University of Florida.
It came to her after visiting slums in Kibera, Kenya, where she worked in an orphanage housing over 400 children.
“They wait in their rooms while sitting on a piece of cardboard” she said. “How do you possibly wait in your room with 50 other people?”
This is the issue Mergens, founder and CEO of Days for Girls International, has strived to eliminate in the seven years since founding the organization in 2008. Among its various humanitarian efforts, Days for Girls is committed to a sustainable solution to the lack of feminine hygiene products in developing nations, Mergens said.
Days for Girls has an international model for manufacturing resuable menstruation pads from fabric. The group has more than 450 chapters in 14 different countries and has a goal of reaching “every girl, everywhere, period” by 2022, Mergens shared with those in attendance.
Days for Girls has given products to more than 200,000 women, and the group has used their feedback to create over 27 models of the pad, resulting in the version currently used today.
Many of the pads go to impoverished girls whose lack of access to feminine products causes problems beyond just hygiene. Some are sexually exploited by school teachers and administration when seeking feminine hygiene products, Mergens said.
Girls who stay home during menstruation before eventually dropping out are part of the root of poverty in third-world countries, she said.
“[The pad] helps a girl stay in school with dignity and health and not use the things so often resorted to,” said Mergens, which often include bark, leaves, cornhusks, stones, newspaper and mattress stuffing.
Mergens emphasized the issue doesn’t only happen in developing countries, but it also happens here in the United States.
“It’s not just somewhere else. It’s right here in your community, I promise. Anywhere where someone has the choice between food and hygiene, food wins,” said Mergens, who has distributed the organization’s hygiene products through chapters in New York City, Chicago and New Orleans.
Even with the organization’s efforts, Mergens believes the issue of sustainable and accessible feminine hygiene products can’t be answered without a change in public perception.
“We’re too afraid to talk about menstruation. We would rather talk about diarrhea than menstruation,” she said. “In fact, none of us came into this world without menstruation happening. What we’re up to is so much more than giving dignity, health and resources.”
Days for Girls depends on crucial volunteer support, Mergens said, including Gainesville’s own Girl Scouts Troupe 733, which has locally supported the cause over the last year.
In addition to holding ‘Sew-a-Thons’ at Santa Fe College’s Perry Center throughout the year, Radha Selvester, one of the troop’s leaders, is part of a group of 10 that will travel to Kenya Dec. 17-30.
Selvester has fundraised more than $2,500 for supplies, such as sewing machines, to bring to Kenya through Crowdsource.
The group, including four local girls and two UF students, will establish a local Sewing and Health Enterprise in Tharaka Nithi, one of the smallest and most rural counties in Kenya, Selvester said. Their goal is to teach women how to make the pads on their own, she said.
“You might think it’s okay to sit at home, but you’re ostracized,” said Selvester.
For 21-year-old Ginnie Lin, a Gainesville native in her third year at UF, attending the event opened her eyes to the issue.
“Girls are the ones who are receiving and using these hygiene things,” she said. “To have that pretty pad to use for something that is so ugly in so many cultures is so important.”
Mergens presented her lecture, “Turning Passion Into Action,” in cooperation with the Bob Graham Center for Public Service and the Alachua County Medical Society.