Celeste Mergens was shocked when she learned that girls at a Kenya orphanage were forced to stay in their rooms and sit on cardboard when they had their periods. So she created Days for Girls, a nonprofit that provides reusable sanitary products and health education to girls and women worldwide. Mergens’ organization has gotten a recent boost from Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, who has led her own campaign to destigmatize menstruation. For Mergens, the work has special significance. She herself comes from difficult circumstances, and was raped at age 7. In Africa, she was horrified to learn that girls at the orphanage were sometimes sexually abused in exchange for disposable pads. Through Days for Girls, she wants to change “the price they were paying for our silence around menstruation.”
SUE: Welcome to The Story Exchange.
COLLEEN: Okay, wait. Before we begin, a quick reminder to our listeners about why we’re doing this podcast...
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SUE: Keep on listening.
SUE: Welcome to The Story Exchange. You’re listening to our series Good on the Ground...
VARIOUS VOICES: ...Good on the Ground...
COLLEEN: You’re listening to Good on the Ground from The Story Exchange, featuring women entrepreneurs making an impact in a world that needs fixing. I’m Colleen DeBaise.
SUE: And I’m Sue Williams.
MEGHAN MARKLE SOT: I am proud to be a woman and a feminist.
COLLEEN: And that’s Meghan Markle.
SUE: And she’ll be joining us in the studio today (laughter).
COLLEEN: OK, not really...but we do want to give some props to the Duchess of Sussex...
SUE: That’s the former American actress now married to Prince Harry.
COLLEEN: We want to give her some props for being a women’s advocate.
MEGHAN MARKLE SOT: And here’s what staggering.
SUE: This is from a speech she gave in 2015, at the UN Women’s conference.
COLLEEN: The agency has set a goal of achieving global gender equality by 2030.
MEGHAN MARKLE SOT: The studies show at the current rate, the elimination of gender inequality won’t be possible until 2095 -- that’s another 80 years from now.
COLLEEN: As she points out later in the speech...
SUE: This has to change.
COLLEEN: One issue the duchess has gotten behind is ending the stigma of menstruation for girls and women around the globe.
SUE: On International Women’s Day in 2017, Meghan Markle penned a powerful essay for Time Magazine.
COLLEEN: It starts: “Imagine a world where the female leaders we revere never achieved their full potential because they dropped out of school at the age of 13.”
SUE: She shares a heart-wrenching statistic: 23% of girls in India drop out of school due to the stigma of menstruation -- that’s about 1 girl in 4.
COLLEEN: Girls feel embarrassed because they have to use rags or leaves instead of pads, bathrooms aren’t available and the subject is taboo.
SUE: And unfortunately, the situation is similar or worse in other countries.
COLLEEN: In Ethiopia, a study found that 56% of girls were absent from school specifically because they did not have a sanitary pad.
SUE: And in rural Nepal, girls are sent to live in small, isolated sheds while menstruating.
COLLEEN: The good news -- and there is good news -- the good news is that there a growing number of social enterprises -- many founded by women entrepreneurs --
SUE: Not a surprise.
COLLEEN: -- nope. These social enterprises are working to stop period shaming and to make feminine hygiene products more readily available.
CELESTE: We have an army of people moving the movement forward to recognize that menstruation matters.
SUE: We headed to Bellingham, Washington, to speak to one of them.
CELESTE: I'm Celeste Mergens. I'm the founder and CEO of Days for Girls International. Get a breath (laughter).
SUE (from tape): Do it again?
CELESTE: I'm Celeste Mergens. I'm the founder and CEO of Days for Girls International.
COLLEEN: Celeste has been running her organization for ten years -- it provides reusable sanitary pads so that girls can continue to go to school when they have their periods.
SUE: In this podcast, we’ll talk to Celeste about what inspired her to start Days for Girls, how she tweaked and refined the organization...
COLLEEN: ...And how she plans to change the lives of girls and women everywhere. With maybe a little help from Meghan Markle.
SUE: Keep on listening.
CELESTE: Stigma, health, shame, lack of access to education -- just a few of the prices women pay because we haven't been able to talk about something we're ashamed to say. Periods happen, and without menstruation there would be no people.
COLLEEN: Our story begins in the mid-2000s, when Celeste was doing volunteer humanitarian work in Africa.
CELESTE: I would drop by whenever I was in Kenya, about every six months, to an orphanage that I'd been invited to be part of. I just fell in love with these kids and wanted to help.
SUE: The orphanage was massively overcrowded.
CELESTE: They were two to three in a bunk bed, and bunk beds were side to side and end to end, so children had to crawl over one side of bunks to get to the other.
COLLEEN: And then in 2007, there was post-election violence in Kenya.
CELESTE: And this orphanage went from a way too crowded 420 kids, to a reported 1,400 children.
SUE: Back at home, Celeste heard about the dire situation.
CELESTE: I just hit my knees and pled for some kind of answer for how I could help these kids.
COLLEEN: In the middle of the night, something occurred to her.
CELESTE: I woke up at 2:30 in the morning with it going through my head: Have you asked what the girls are doing for feminine hygiene? It had never occurred to me to ask that question. I literally gasped.
COLLEEN: She ran to her computer and e-mailed the orphanage.
SUE: She got a response immediately.
CELESTE: And it said only this: "Nothing. They wait in their rooms." It turned out that they would sit on a piece of cardboard for days. And I knew we needed to change that.
COLLEEN: Like any startup entrepreneur, it took Celeste a few tries to figure out how to best address the problem.
CELESTE: So my first thought was disposable, because that’s what I was accustomed to.
COLLEEN: She asked an international charity to donate a month’s supply of disposable pads for the girls in the orphanage.
SUE: But she ran into a problem.
CELESTE: I hadn't thought of the fact that they had no place to throw it away.
SUE: They use pit latrines in the slums.
CELESTE: The chainlink fence adjacent to the latrines was filled with disposed-of pads that were rolled up in every little link of the chainlink.
COLLEEN: So Celeste’s next idea was to invent a reusable pad, using white cloth.
CELESTE: Volunteers sewed this first design. Three of them sewed till their fingertips bled.
SUE: The basic idea was a good one.
COLLEEN: But the pads didn’t fit well -- and worse, after washing, they showed stains.
CELESTE: They started out white because pads are white, and we learned really quickly that that didn't work. The girls explained how taboo it was to hang anything out menstrual-related.
COLLEEN: Celeste went back to the proverbial drawing board...
CELESTE: We've been through 27.5 versions.
SUE: ...And finally came up with a winner.
COLLEEN: Celeste and her volunteers came up with a trifold, washable pad made with colorful fabrics, which look more like washcloths.
SUE: Here’s Celeste talking to a roomful of volunteers in Bellingham.
CELESTE SOT: And this is how you make a pad not look like a pad. Ta-da! If the color makes you smile, it’s the right color.
CELESTE: We kept listening, and the design today is actually patented.
COLLEEN: The pads come as part of a kit...
CELESTE SOT: They get two shields, a bar of soap, eight liners, a pair of
underwear, an insert, a washcloth.
COLLEEN: Celeste began distributing kits to girls in Kenya.
SOT: In this packet is a gift for you that will help you with your period, so you can still go to school. (girls cheering)
CELESTE: Soon we had more and more requests, and more and more people reaching out to want to know how to do it.
SUE: The work spread to other parts of Africa and Asia.
COLLEEN: Which brings us to today.
SUE: Days for Girls is supported by an ever-growing number of individual donors and private foundations.
CELESTE: We have over 1,000 chapters and teams in 70 nations and over 50,000 volunteers. This small intervention is world changing.
COLLEEN: We’ll be right back with Celeste’s extraordinary personal story after this brief message.
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COLLEEN: We’ve been looking at Celeste Mergens, who started Days for Girls ten years ago.
SUE: As listeners know, we like to share the personal stories behind the women entrepreneurs we feature...
COLLEEN: What motivates these women to do what they do.
SUE: Celeste herself comes from incredibly difficult circumstances.
CELESTE: As a child, I was born into a family that faced poverty. So there were times that I went without food and lived in our car. And through that I gained a lot of gifts of understanding for those who go through tough times, and recognizing that we're not our circumstances, we're how we respond to them.
SUE: Celeste’s mother was loving but she was often incapacitated by mental illness that made her really unable to care for her children. Celeste was also physically beaten and abused.
CELESTE: And I actually am a survivor of rape. I was raped at age seven. And having been through that, I know how easy it is for us to blame ourselves and to leave feeling more vulnerable and absolutely tainted by it.
SUE: In Kenya, shortly after Celeste began distributing those kits in 2008, she learned something that shook her to her core.
CELESTE: At the very first distribution, we had the girls come up and explain that they were being sexually exploited in exchange for a single disposable pad. And they explained, “Thank you so much, because before you came, we had to let them use us if we wanted to leave the room or go to class.” That, for me, was the moment Days for Girls was born.
COLLEEN: You really can hear the emotion in her voice.
CELESTE: Thank you. Now you know why I have tissues in the office...
SUE: It was a very emotional interview. When I met her at her office in Bellingham --
CELESTE SOT: That’s really good, Emily!
SUE: -- you quickly see that she’s a leader, really driven by her work.
CELESTE SOT: That’s a beautiful bag, and it’s perfectly made.
SUE: She’s also very warm and funny and generous.
CELESTE SOT: Ready, incoming! Alley-oop!
SUE: And I wondered how she’d moved beyond such a traumatic childhood to this good place, and she immediately credited her husband Don for giving her unflagging love and stability.
CELESTE: Oh, my husband Don is a wonder. He’s a COO so, very steady. He, from the moment he met me, says he knew that I was going to be his wife. And I was so traumatized that I didn’t want to trust anyone at all. And this man just stuck it out with patience and love.
SUE: They’ve been married for over 30 years now. They have six children and a home where everyone’s welcome.
COLLEEN: Critical to Celeste’s work is education -- removing the shame, stigma and silence around menstruation.
CELESTE: In parts of the world, in Nepal, it's believed you'll bring ill fortune, that you are untouchable, that people will become ill if you're anywhere around them.
SUE: Days for Girls provides its volunteers with a curriculum to explain how the body works, its natural functions.
COLLEEN: Simply talking about periods is a huge step forward in many cultures.
CELESTE: These Days for Girls kits become a doorway to brand new conversations and incredible delivery of not only days of dignity and health and opportunity, but also this opportunity to talk about things that were completely off the table before.
MUSIC: You know I’m all about them days, them days for girls...
CELESTE: Days for Girls isn't a rock that I'm pushing, or a weight that I'm lifting, it's a sail that lifts me. And I just run to keep up with it.
COLLEEN: Days for Girls is not the only social enterprise committed to menstrual health management...
SUE: ...But each take a slightly different approach.
COLLEEN: In Mozambique, for instance, the nonprofit Wamina provides low-cost, reusable sanitary pads, and hosts menstrual health workshops.
SUE: In India, the Myna Mahila Foundation employs local women to manufacture sanitary pads and sell them door to door in Mumbai’s slums.
COLLEEN: And Myna Mahila is one of seven charities that was chosen by Meghan Markle and Prince Harry to receive donations in lieu of wedding gifts. Here’s founder Suhani Jalota talking to Indian news site The Quint.
SOT: And I think it really speaks a lot to the sincerity of the couple for promoting causes that are very important and grassroots-level organizations that are very small.
COLLEEN: Her organization, of course, has gotten a tremendous boost in interest and funding since the royal wedding -- but when I spoke to Celeste she said Days for Girls has also benefited from the spotlight on menstrual health.
CELESTE: This is how you reach the farthest, most remote, last mile.
SUE: In terms of the competitive landscape, Days for Girls believes its organization is different from the others because of its two-pronged approach to tackling the issue.
COLLEEN: Aside from volunteers who distribute the kits, Days for Girls trains women to make and sell menstrual-health products and provide education in their own communities.
SUE: Celeste calls it “the Avon ladies of menstrual hygiene.”
CELESTE: These enterprises are a way for them to replicate the money making just enough to pay for the products, just enough to cover the materials and sewing, and to cover a living wage for those who are making sure they get out into the field.
COLLEEN: The enterprise model is currently operating in 14 countries, and women who sell the kits --
SUE: -- wearing bright orange Days for Girls uniforms --
COLLEEN: -- make wages that allow them to pay for food or send children to school.
CELESTE: More and more is being done by the enterprise arm of what we do. We're really excited about that. This is how you make it something that's driven by the market, instead of something that's just taken to them.
COLLEEN: And one last thing before we conclude this podcast.
SUE: It might surprise listeners to know there’s a need in the United States for Days for Girls as well.
CELESTE: We got a call first from New Orleans. Communities and school groups had called and said, “We have an estimated 3,200 girls that are going without adequate feminine care supplies.”
COLLEEN: Days for Girls now works in a number of U.S. communities and also supplies products to U.S. prisons.
SUE: We asked Celeste to share some closing thoughts with us. Here’s what she said.
CELESTE: I feel every day, who gets to do this? We do. We get to be the generation of people who makes sure this isn't true in the future, who makes sure that there will come a day that no one will even believe that this day of lack ever happened, that we don't have any shame about this anywhere. We get to do that, and that's something that wakes me up pretty early in the morning.
COLLEEN: We thank Celeste for sharing her story.
SUE: And we thank you for listening.
COLLEEN: And actress and singer Chrissie Fit, a board member for Days for Girls, will play us out performing that special song you heard earlier, written to support the organization’s mission.
MUSIC: We’ve got sewing machines stitching that fabric up
These pads are beautiful and soak up every drop
All girls have brains and beauty, let’s raise them up
’Cause every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top
My mama, she told me I don’t need to run and hide
SUE: This has been The Story Exchange. Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or...maybe you would.
COLLEEN: If you liked this podcast, please share on social media or post a review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. And we’d love to hear from you, especially if you know someone who should be featured on this podcast. Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org -- or find us on Facebook. Sound editing provided by Nusha Balyan. Production coordinator is Christina Kelly. Interview recorded by Sam Shinn. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.