Celeste Mergens, founder of Days for Girls.
Celeste Mergens, founder of Days for Girls.

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Three simple items can make a significant difference to millions of girls: panties, pads and soap.

Because a girl in Zimbabwe didn’t have them, she inserted a corncob in her vagina, leading to infection, severe scarring and a permanent limp. Girls in some other developing countries have resorted to socks, rocks, feathers, leaves and mattress stuffing to try to control their menstrual flow.

It’s situations like these that a group called Days for Girls, based in Lynden, Wash., is working to overcome with the help of “ambassadors of women’s health,” who help them spread information and menstrual hygiene kits.

Last month Teen Voices caught up with the group in midtown Manhattan where Days for Girls was conducting a nine-hour training for 14 women joining the outreach effort. Twelve of the women came from around New York City and two were from Malawi.

Most were already in town for the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, an annual gathering that took place March 9-20 of global leaders and activists monitoring goals and progress for gender equality.

The trainees learned how to educate girls and women on topics ranging from puberty to self-defense.

They also learned how to introduce a kit produced by Days for Girls, which contains eight flannel antimicrobial liners, two pairs of panties and two moisture barrier shields, which hold the liners and snaps onto the panties. The shield can be adjusted to hold one liner or several stacked together, for the depth of a maxi pad, depending on a girl’s flow. All materials are designed to be washable with soap, which is provided in the kit, and a minimal amount of water.

Afterwards, the trainees were tested on what they’d learned.

Kenya Beginnings

At the training, Days for Girls’ founder Celeste Mergens spoke about realizing the importance of proper feminine hygiene products in 2008 when she visited an orphanage in Kenya.

The girls there were dangerously overcrowded, with bunk beds placed end to end. They went through days without access to food or water.

Given the other shortages, the girls’ lack of feminine hygiene products seemed like a minor issue to Mergens. But then some of them told her that their only access to pads was through their male caretakers who required sexual favors in exchange for the products. “That’s when Days for Girls was born in my mind,” she said.

“Pads are very expensive where I’m from,” said Dr. Victoria Nnensa, a physician from Malawi who joined the training. “Most girls don’t have them and they come as a secondary priority to food.” When she heard kits could be purchased for $5, Nnensa said she was excited to bring them home.

In Malawi, Nnensa said, it is taboo to talk about sex. “Many girls don’t know their reproductive rights so they are abused. Many contract HIV, and many become pregnant as teenagers. I want to create a safe space for these girls where they can get services and education.”

In countries where menstrual hygiene is taboo, girls in puberty are typically absent for 20 percent of the school year, UNICEF reports.

The lack of pads and tampons limits girls’ educational opportunities in many parts of the world. Mainly it’s a factor in developing countries, but it can also be problem for girls in the U.S. who live in areas of extreme poverty. Cassie Catalanotto, New Orleans chapter director of Days for Girls, said that when her and her team were distributing kits in New Orleans, a woman asked for one because she couldn’t afford feminine care products.

Some Girls Banished

In many developing countries girls are not allowed to stay at home or cook while they menstruate for fear of contamination. Instead, they are banished to small huts with many other girls during their periods.

This tradition can discourage girls by making them feel ashamed of their bodies. And, according to a 2010 U.N. study, it can also be very dangerous since the odor from their menstruation can attract snakes and other wild animals. Girls have also died from exposure.

Days for Girls has distributed kits in 75 countries, reaching more than 100,000 girls.

Mergens and her team experimented with 27 designs for pads before deciding on the ones in the kits now. “I wish I could tell you our first pads were fabulous, but they were awful,” she said. The first version was white and had ribbons to tie to the girls’ panties, but the pads would often slip to the front and the girls complained that they “look like men.”

The kits can last up to four years and cost $4 on average for Days for Girls to make. In addition to receiving the kits, some girls are taught to make and sell them, a business that can support the girls, their families and their communities. According to one girl from Uganda, “these kits are like gold.”