Humanitarian group aims for worldwide feminine hygiene access

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Women in rural towns of Nepal are secluded in small huts away from their families four days out of every month.

Ancient tradition says if the women prepare food, eat with their families or touch men, a curse will come upon their families because the women are unclean.

Girls pose with their Days for Girls kits in the Dominican Republic. (Days for Girls)
Girls pose with their Days for Girls kits in the Dominican Republic. (Days for Girls)

The reason for their regular exile? The women’s monthly menstruation.

While the traditions surrounding menstruation vary from country to country, women in many impoverished communities face similar situations. Embarrassment and seclusion inhibit young girls from finishing school and holding a job.

Why does this issue exist?

Feminine hygiene products that might allow women continue their daily lives are too expensive for many around the world. Often, families are forced to choose between eating and buying hygiene products.

Rosie Gremmert saw this dilemma firsthand while visiting the Dominican Republic. She learned that a man earns five to six dollars in a 16-hour workday. A single disposable pad in the country costs about five dollars.

Many women struggle with monthly menstruation both because of a lack of funds and because they simply do not understand why they menstruate every month. This lack of understanding leads to feelings of shame and embarrassment that drive menstruating girls and women in developing countries away from school and work.

What is the solution?

In 2008, Celeste Mergens visited an orphanage in the slums of Kenya to deliver sustainable humanitarian products, including stoves and solar lighting. As a Latter-day Saint who was trying to follow the tenet of her faith in helping others, she was proud of what she had developed but had the desire to do more.

School girls in Guatemala receive their Days for Girls kits. (Days for Girls)

One night, she pondered the hundreds of orphans and what more she could do to help feed them. At 2:30 a.m. she woke up not with solutions to hunger, but with a question: “Have you asked what the girls are doing for feminine hygiene?”

After learning what circumstances these and other girls around the world faced, she founded the organization Days for Girls with the goal to “create a more dignified, free and educated world through access to lasting feminine hygiene solutions.”

Mergens developed a reusable pad that lasts three years. This gives 180 days back to girls to do things they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do during their menstrual cycles.

An extensive system of volunteers — including LDS Relief Society groups — sew, assemble and distribute kits throughout the world to give relief to women. So far, over 200,000 kits have been delivered in 100 countries.

During kit distribution, volunteers also take time to educate women and girls about their menstruation.

What effect do these kits have?

While volunteer Tammy Pack distributed kits in Guatemala, a woman began yelling in her native language while banging the table with her fists. Pack worried she had offended the woman, but the translator told Pack otherwise.

“Why hasn’t anyone come and told us this before?” the woman said. “All this time we haven’t known (about menstruation) and we’re just getting it now.”

Karen Hamilton had a similar experience while distributing kits in Nepal.

Girls pose with their kits. Girls receive education about menstruation while the kits are distributed. (Days for Girls)

“As I was talking, I could just see their eyes get bigger and bigger,” Hamilton said. “They started to smile just these huge smiles, and then they even grabbed my arm and said, ‘The girls will love this. They really need this.'”

Many volunteers have similar experiences where the women who receive the kits show immense gratitude. But perhaps what the girls do with the kits demonstrates their gratitude even more.

According to the Days for Girls website, school absence rates in Uganda dropped from 36 percent to 8 percent after Days for Girls kits were distributed. In Kenya, the rates dropped from 25 percent to 3 percent.

When will the problem be fixed?

Days for Girls’ goal is for every girl and woman in the world to have feasible access to sustainable, quality hygiene and health education by 2022.

“I think we are absolutely on pace to reach our goal, and that’s based on two things: One, the exponential growth that’s happening around the world, and two, the increase of awareness and how much more people are willing to talk about this issue,” Mergens said.

A young girl smells the soap included in her Days for Girls kit. (Days for Girls)

Days for Girls hopes to create solutions worldwide by teaching people in each country how to sew their own kits. These groups collectively make up what Mergens calls the Global Alliance.

“While we work hard to help as many girls as possible, our end goal is to work ourselves out of a job,” said volunteer Sondra Hudgens.

Mergens says Days for Girls has grown so quickly that the organization always needs additional funds and volunteers.

“Whatever your time or resources, there’s a way to help Days for Girls, whether it’s sewing kits or helping respond to emails,” Mergens said. “It’s going to take all of us to reach all of them.”

To learn more about how to volunteer, visit www.daysforgirls.org.

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