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Episode 016: Period Poverty, Gender Equality & Resilience with DfG Founder Celeste Mergens

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Celeste Mergens is the founder and CEO of Days for Girls International. Since 2008, she has grown the organization from a small group of local sewists into an award-winning, global NGO serving menstruators and their communities in 144 countries (and counting). A heart-centered and compassion-driven visionary, Celeste has dedicated her life to showing every girl, everywhere that she is strong, worthy and capable of extraordinary things – and giving her the tools she needs to thrive, starting with menstrual health.

In this very special podcast episode, Celeste walks us through the founding of Days for Girls, the inspiration behind the mission and what drives her to lead this work every single day (including her own story of trauma and resilience). She also dives into the power of locally-led solutions, the multilayered impact of the DfG Enterprise Program, the benefits of washable period products…and so much more!

Highlights: 

  • The DfG origin story: how working with girls in a Kenyan orphanage prompted the birth of Days for Girls
  • How Celeste mobilized the first DfG volunteers and garnered support for the cause through the “power of invitation”
  • Why reaching every girl, everywhere needs to be a global, collaborative movement
  • How Celeste’s own experience growing up with poverty, homelessness and trauma fueled a core motivation to show girls that they matter – regardless of their circumstance
  • How the menstrual equity movement fits into the broader feminist movement 
  • Why locally-led solutions and empowering local leaders is the future of Days for Girls
  • How the Social Enterprise program empowers local women, families and entire communities to thrive
  • The importance of period product choice and the case for washable pads
  • How you, the listener, can help Days for Girls meet our most urgent needs and bring sustainable solutions to more menstruators than ever

Quotes:

Why shattering the stigma around menstruation is critical to addressing the roots of gender inequity

“For me, this conversation of shifting that stigma is actually at the root – at the base – of how we bought into the lie that women should ever be less than completely at the table. I believe this is one of the roots to it. So for me, I am a lion about this because we must change this….this is something we can shift with correct solutions that work and conversations and education. How amazing is that? I love, love, love that this is one of the things that is at the root. Because this? This one we’ve got.”

On the importance of menstrual equity

“There are so many things that are hard to change in this world, but reversing menstrual equity, and the gender inequity that happens as a result [isn’t one of them]. And the wounds, if you will, the body pain that we share…can heal with something as small as a pad and education, opening doors to end that inequity and to bring shattered stigma and shame.”

How DfG pads change lives and set menstruators free

“If you don’t have what you need, it’s truly bondage by your basic biology, and how can it not affect your confidence? So women, menstruators and girls all over the world should have what they need… if you have something you can count on month after month, if this little bundle of a pad that can be in your glove compartment or your purse, and no matter what happens to economic supply chain resources in your community, you have something you can count on. It is freedom.”

On her own experience growing up in the shadow of hardship, poverty and homelessness

“And in this moment they asked me, are you the poor girl? Are you the girl without a home? Are you the hungry one? Or are you something more? And that moment I got to decide. No, no, I’m not these things happening to me. I’m not.

[Now] I’m standing in ways that helped me overcome the trauma, standing in ways that invite others to be all that they could be. Standing witness that we are not our circumstances, for good or for ill, we are so much more than that, no matter what we’re going through. It is our responses, it is what is possible within us that matters, not what’s going on around us. It is not defining of who we are, nor our possibility.”

Bio:

Celeste Mergens is the founder and CEO of Days for Girls International. She has led the organization since its beginning in 2008, driven by twenty years of nonprofit and business management experience. She holds a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing and Literature and audited a second in Global Sustainable Development. Her “can do” team-building approach has inspired thousands of volunteers and social enterprises worldwide.

Under Celeste’s stewardship, Days for Girls has won the SEED award for gender equity and entrepreneurship; was named as a ‘Next Ten’ Organization poised to change the world in the next decade by the Huffington Post; and is two-time Girl Effect Champion.

Celeste is a sought-after speaker who has been featured in Oprah’s O Magazine and Forbes, among other top-tier publications. She was recently named an AARP Purpose Prize Award winner, a Conscious Company Global Impact Entrepreneur of the year and Women Economic Forum’s Woman of the Decade. She loves being with her family when not traveling the globe. She is married to her best friend, Don Mergens. Their family includes 11 phenomenal children (five by marriage), 15 grandchildren, four foster children, and four foreign exchange students – plus many beloved friends who have become family all around the world.

Transcript:

Celeste Mergens 0:00
For me, this conversation of shifting that stigma is actually at the root- at the base – of how we bought into the lie that women should ever be less than completely at the table. I believe this is one of the routes to it. So for me, I am a lion about this because we must change this.

Jessica Wiliams 0:29
Welcome to the Days for Girls Podcast, a show about breaking barriers for women and girls around the world. I’m your host, Jessica Wiliams, Chief Communications Officer at Days for Girls International. At Days for Girls, we believe in a world where periods are never a problem. We are on a mission to shatter the stigma and limitations associated with menstruation by increasing access to sustainable period products, and menstrual health education for all people with periods. Today I have the honor of interviewing Days for Girls founder and CEO Celeste Mergens.

Celeste has led the organization since its beginning in 2008, driven by 20 years of nonprofit and business management experience. Under her stewardship, Days for Girls has won the SEED award for gender equity and entrepreneurship, was named as a ‘Next Ten’ Organization poised to change the world by the Huffington Post, is a two-time Girl Effect Champion and was awarded .Org of the Year for 2020 by Public Interest Registry. Celeste is a sought after speaker who has been featured in Oprah’s O magazine and Forbes, among other top tier publications. She was recently named an AARP Purpose Prize winner, a Conscious Company Global Impact Entrepreneur of the Year and Women Economic Forum’s Woman of the Decade. She loves being with her family when she is not traveling the globe. She is married to her best friend, Don Mergens, and their family includes 11 children: five by marriage, 15 grandchildren, four foster children and four foreign exchange students – plus many beloved friends who have become family all around the world. I get the privilege of working closely with Celeste on a daily basis. So in this interview, I approach our conversation with a beginner’s mind. I hope you are inspired by this conversation as much as I was. Celeste, welcome to the show! I am so excited to have this conversation today. I thought we could start out by talking about how you became aware of menstrual inequity and period poverty and your journey to becoming a passionate entrepreneur and global leader for women and girls.

Celeste Mergens 2:50
It kind of found me. I had not thought to ask the question of what girls were doing for menstrual care products. And I was working on sustainable solutions for communities in Kenya. I had the opportunity to look for agricultural and water and education and health systems and to be part of that with the Clay Foundation. But I had not asked the question of what was happening for menstruation. I had been helping in a school and orphanage whenever I came into town – like every six months or so, it’s back to Kenya with solutions, and was introduced to this place and learned that they were going without what they needed for menstruation. In fact, they were sitting on a piece of cardboard for days. I knew we had to change that. And honestly, the first thing that I thought of was disposable products because that’s all I knew. However, I also knew that if you have to choose between food and other resources, especially in scarce settings, you’re going to choose food and that’s the right choice. So I knew that we needed a solution to help the girls leave the classroom and go to school and have the confidence with their days. But I didn’t know yet what the alternative could be that they could count on month after month.

We did innovate the first washable pads and I have to tell you, they were not very well designed. And I can say that because I designed them and it was considering that, you know, pads are white and they look like a pad. So this pad first design was hard for them to use because who wants to take out a menstrual pad that has a stain on it to dry in your front yard? Especially in a place where there’s such stigma and shame. And I did know, however, to ask and to listen to what they needed and how they were working. Regardless of that limitation of the first design, we also, I asked the question, who’s teaching them about what a period is? And they said, no one – you can do that. I was not yet a global expert in menstrual health and reproductive health. And I was a little panicked by that, and honestly tried to seek someone who was already teaching it locally, anywhere, any kind of program. Kept reaching out, I couldn’t find anything, not even with the World Health Organization, not anywhere I looked was there a curriculum that we could incorporate that could be led locally. So we had the first conversation and I invited people from Kenya that I knew to join us, and we’re in the room – volunteers had stepped up to make washable supplies. Imagine having to make 500 washable menstrual care kits from starter design to finish in just three and a half weeks! And volunteers literally sewed to their fingertips bled, because our very first design you can sewed on snap. So that’s a very treacherous activity. And so imagine all these volunteers stepping up, eight huge duffels brought with us. So we come into the room, only 250 could fit at a time, and in this echoing room with 10 roofs, these excited girls gathering and we’re having this conversation about their health and wellness and what a period is, and that actually their bodies are amazing, and that they matter. And we have this beautiful conversation and they receive their Days for Girls Kits and they’re so animated and excited. And here comes the first set of girls and I’m near the door. And they walk up with these big smiles and say, thank you so much. Because before you came, we had to let them use us if we wanted to leave the room and go to class. And I’m hoping that doesn’t mean what I feared it meant. I ask them: please, could you meet with us afterwards? Can you promise me that we can talk about this because I had another 250 girls waiting to come in, we had the sound of everybody being excited was echoing off the tin roof, I couldn’t even hear them very well. And when we finished, they were waiting. And they confirmed that they were being sexually exploited in exchange for a single disposable pad. And that was a moment Days for Girls was born.

Jessica Wiliams 7:40
So you just knew in your heart, you couldn’t walk away, and you had to do something. So tell me what you did. Like, you go back to the United States. And I’m just like, how did you rally and mobilize volunteers to help you? Sew these pads and help you innovate? Like, did you get your family and friends involved? Like what was that? Take me there. What did that look like?

Celeste Mergens 8:08
We sure did. Honestly, Jessica, people didn’t believe it. Like I came back horrified, right, that they were being exploited, that was the reality of this place. And and so I told them, you know, it made a huge difference what you did, yes, they got their days back. Now they can go to class. And this is what was happening before. And people were, of course, really disturbed by that. But they also some of them would say that can’t be true in 2008, that just can’t be true – that the girls would have to go without to the extent that they would be exploited for menstrual products. And what we didn’t know was how broadly true that is, and how all the many costs that menstruators pay around the planet for something so basic to our biology that connects us all. And so what I did was what I always do, invited people to ask. And so I would ask them, you know, don’t take my word for it, please, if you know someone that’s working in a place where this may be a reality, even in your own neighborhood, ask, what are people doing? And of course, more and more we come back, you know, I’m from Bosnia, and actually, we have this problem there. And oh, I just checked with my friends in India, and they have this problem there. And I knew how to code so I made a website. This was back before you could just have one made, it was just starting to be where you could get a little template to make one, and so we made our first website and made it open source. Here’s what we’re doing. This is how we’re doing it. From the very first education was part of it and it proved to be pretty pivotal that it was part of it. So we encouraged everyone: let’s have this educational conversation. And we started to codify that as well. And that too became informed by the feedback of those we serve. So it became, if you will, crowdsourcing. Everyone coming together to say, I’m choosing this, what I always say is, the impossible is happening. People were talking to strangers about periods back before this was a thing, people talked, they were talking to people in lines and in grocery stores and in their groups. And when they were purchasing fabric to make more, and they were stepping up in a way that is kind of unprecedented, not only were they using their time, and their own hands, but also willing to advocate about the need, and also willing to invest their funds in a really big way. And, and we just kept inviting more to join in. Let’s change this.

And honestly, from the beginning to me, it felt both terrible that this could possibly be happening, of course, everywhere in the world. What do homeless women do? What does any family anywhere do? And they’re choosing between food, shelter, or hygiene? How do we make solutions that can last month after month – that became part of the clarion call from the very beginning. Like how do we make this product as good as it can be? So it’s easy to use, and we used it, I used it – because if it’s not something I would use, then certainly no one else should be called to use it. We need something that’s not only reliable, but actually works. And so that call went out all through the world. And yes, impossibly, thousnads joined in, and our family – we moved from, we were in on the dining room table, then we moved to churches or community centers and and it moved down to my basement. The first 5000 Days for Girls Kits were assembled in a very small farmhouse basement, my husband said….I was down there, and he says what you’re doing? Because it was his man cave. And I said, I’m thinking that this part right here, we should do Days for Girls, just this quarter of it. And he said, honey it’s the man cave. And I said, actually, right now from now on this part is the “she castle.”

And then volunteers work to bring like pallet wood and insulation. And we made our 1927 barn, the lower part into a working space where we could have shelves, and work together with a larger group and things kept growing as people just kept standing up and saying: this is something we can change in our lifetime. And that’s the hopeful thing that to this day, wakes me up early ready to start. There are so many things that are hard to change in this world, but reversing menstrual equity, and then gender inequity that happens as a result. And the wounds, if you will, the body pain that we share – a wound around the world about this inequity – can heal with something as small as a pad and education, opening doors to end that inequity and to shatter the stigma and shame. It’s amazing to me even today.

Jessica Wiliams 13:37
I think, you know, Celeste, I come from a communications background. And I’ve been in so many rooms where people like you saw a problem, and they had a solution. And they wanted to activate the world. But they just didn’t know how to reach out and get people involved in their movement. And you seem to have done this, so like, there are over 70,000 volunteers now. You know, since 2008 that you’ve grown – like I think you take for granted how amazing it is that you were able to mobilize all these people and I want to dig in and just go: were you speaking to these people in their homes? And like where are you getting access to all these amazing people who were just so willing to just join your movement, and then you know, donate their time and their skills and their homes to you?

Celeste Mergens 14:35
Isn’t it amazing? So honestly, I don’t see that as me, I see it as the power of we. I see it as: I could share what I saw and what I experienced and then invite them to consider how that might relate to them, And honestly never felt like if they said…oh no, really I’m into the Humane Society, or oh no, I really care about arts…I never felt like, oh but you have to come with us. I felt like those who feel called to do this, drawn to do this will step up. And so I just told everybody and let them self select. And then what happened was that I believe in the power of invitation, and I just invited them, would you like to help in this? Would you like to change this in the world and from the very beginning, I know this sounds ridiculous, but I could see that this actually could. In that every girl, everywhere period – that every menstruator having what they need, and not being shamed – was possible. I remember I was in a room, and a dear friend was doing our first board a consultation on like, our strategy. And she said, okay, so what do you feel like is a measurable, achievable goal that you should set? And I said, every girl everywhere (the period part hadn’t come in yet). And she said, let me describe measurable. And I said well, actually, okay, how about 20 chapters by next year? And she goes, now that’s more like it, how many do you have now? And I said, one!

And do you know that we hit 20, just less than a week before, a year later. And the thing is, that it really is about the power of that invitation. But I could see it, Jessica. Every girl, everywhere, period, to me is not about Days for Girls reaching every girl. I knew that this would take connections, that this would take a movement, that would invite many organizations, many people and partners, and that would be about what we can do as a collective to shift this on our planet. Not just Days for Girls. So when more and more organizations come on board, like they are today, you know, wanting to take on a facet of it. That’s a huge celebration of the real thing that I to this day see clearly. To me, we are not working on a subjective here. To me, this is already a done deal. We’re just taking the steps to get to that day, because this is just about shared conversation, agreements and suitable solutions that work and repeat. And, and so for me, the gathering of people was always about: are you one of the people that wants to change this on our planet? And if not, next! Because the tribes gathering to do this, these powerful, fearless menstrual advocates are just unusual, and impossibly beautiful to me. And we’re just sorting for them. And they have the wind and the strength and the will to go there. So it’s, it’s been about inviting.

Jessica Wiliams 18:07
I love that I am. As you know, I’m so inspired by you and the work that you’ve done. And I think it’s just phenomenal what you’ve accomplished. And, you know, for those who maybe don’t know, a bit about your your upbringing, your childhood, I think it might be really interesting to talk about that. Because I want to know, specifically, like: where did you get this capacity for this vision, this resolv, the perseverance that you bring to your work? Like, where does that come from?

Celeste Mergens 18:43
I have a gift that I’d never called a gift. When I was young, I had the experience of poverty and even hunger and even going without home a home for parts of my upbringing. And trauma, right. And there’s this, there was a moment that I got – I mean just thinking about it a lot over the years, and I only recognized it about four years ago maybe as a pivotal moment for me. I was about five years old. I was walking along a path at a state park and we were living there, right, then in transit to another place. And I could I can still feel the warmth of the sidewalk as I was walking along. And you know how the sand can sometimes be sparkling as you’re walking along. And I was looking at that and this dog walked into my view. A little white fluffy dog that had a rhinestone collar and it led up to the owner’s hand, and I as I looked up, she had a half eaten apple in her hand. And not to be dramatic, but it’s been a while since I’ve had any fruit or food at that moment. And she threw it into the dumpster that happened to be near where we were standing, and I followed the arc. It hit the bottom of the dumpster and I was trying to decide if I could get in there and climb back out. Just decided I couldn’t. And to retrieve that apple, I just couldn’t. And then you have, you know how you have that feeling in the back of your neck that someone’s staring at you. I had that feeling that looked up at her and she was still standing there. And she’s looking up and down, that looking up and down look that you get some times, and I could feel it was like a mirror turned around, and I could see what she saw. And she looked at me. And I could see that she saw a little girl with dirty feet and clothes that were too small and I could just feel in her eyes and, and it was such a moment, and all the sudden she turned to walk away. But my whole being is like, I am not from here. I am not this place. I am not my clothes. I am not what you see.

And I used to think of her as Cruella de Vil. Remember from 101 Dalmatians? [Laughter] And I would think about it, was such a moment of pain for me, honestly. For a lot of years, as I’d run the track back through my head and was just a couple years ago that I realized that moment could be an angel, because I got the gift of someone looking at me in the eyes that young. And in this moment they asked me, are you the poor girl? Are you the girl without a home? Are you the hungry one? Or are you something more? And that moment I got to decide. No, no, I’m not these things happening to me. I’m not. And soin my life – and I even went without period products, but didn’t even think to call it out because we don’t talk about this. But my life has been centered since then. I’m standing in ways that helped me overcome the trauma, standing in ways that invited others to be all that they could be. Standing witness that we are not our circumstances, for good or for ill, we are so much more than that, no matter what we’re going through. It is our responses, it is what is possible within us that matters, not what’s going on around us. It is not defining of who we are, nor our possibility. So when I come in any situation, I want to hear their wisdom, I want to hear their viewpoint and I want to do if you will, the dance of bringing together with both of our strings, when invited to – and invite them to. And build and hold with them absolute assurance that what they expect as outcome can happen. And to bring together sustainable solutions. So that it can be their own in strength for a tomorrow they envision became part of my very DNA from very early on.

Jessica Wiliams 23:32
I love that. I just got chills. And you know, this so resonates with me because – and I think probably a lot of women who are listening and men listening – just that piece of “I’m not my circumstances, and I am so much bigger than that.” And I think you are a shining example of that. And so are, you know, millions of the women that Days for Girls has served. So it’s pretty, pretty amazing. I want to go back to something you said in the very beginning: you were talking about how you went to Kenya and the girls there. The orphanage inspired you to start Days for Girls, so you came back to the United States. And did you know how to sew at that point? I want to I want to hear about that. Because I don’t know how to sew and I honestly I don’t know any women that do! And so I think it’s amazing that you know how to sew and you mobilized all these sewists all over the world.

Celeste Mergens 24:36
It’s been amazing. I know they’re kind of miraculous, cause if they were 10 years earlier or later, maybe that group of people that knew how to sew wouldn’t have been able to. In a time of their life they could just dive in, and more people are learning, and a lot of people who said, “I learned to sew so I could be part of this.” What’s interesting, so I learned to sew when I was probably eight, my mother taught me. I sewed on a treadmill machine… who learns to sew on a treadmill machine? I did. And so all over the world where they often use treadmill machines, that’s something familiar to me. And I would make little dolls and I would make doll clothes. And I would make clothes clothes. I actually could sew anything I can see. So I can make a wedding dress, anything that I can see I can pattern out. So this pad wasn’t difficult. What’s interesting to me, Jessica, is that pretty early on, I had this really strong impression that my role with Days for Girls was not to sew – that it was to call people together and to organize. I am so strong that sometimes, to this day, when I go to sit at a sewing machine, I have this like, check in, you know – oh, yeah, it’s okay to sew, because I really liked it. For years, I made quilts, I loved to dog, double dog dare myself to come up with innovative pattern combinations and color combinations and make [inaudible] a mermaid garden out of pieces of cloth. And and it felt very strongly that for this season, it wasn’t my role too. So yeah.

Jessica Wiliams 26:17
So with Days for Girls, one of the things that you know about my background is that I’ve been passionate about women’s empowerment and empowering women and girls around the world for a long time. And this has been something I’ve dedicated my personal resources and my time and energy to. And it was interesting, because I never came across the issue of menstrual equity, it just never hit my radar. And when this opportunity opened up a Days for Girls for this position, was the first time I’d ever learned of this. And I was shocked. I was ashamed that I had assumed that, you know, it just never crossed my radar. And I’ve heard that from so many women out there. And the moment it’s like, the moment people realize that this is an issue and there’s a solution that we can do, they get so like, ready to get involved. And I can see that as part of how you’ve been able to build this movement, and this collective and this global community – this network – because it is such a base level need as a human right, that women need. And so I’m wondering if you can talk about that. Like how the Days for Girls movement, the menstrual health movement fits into women’s empowerment and the feminist movement.

Celeste Mergens 27:57
It’s still phenomenal to me. I think it’s indicative of the stigma and shame around this. It’s so big everywhere, that we just don’t talk about it. But even more, don’t really even hold a place for it in our consciousness at a base level. And it should be the opposite. Like we should be celebrating this. I’ve had people say, you can’t ask people to celebrate it. It can be painful and inconvenient. But without periods, there would be no people! Like this connects every one of us. Why can’t we shift it to celebration? And what’s become more and more clear to me over the years – and I just feel strongly, this is no exaggeration – that many of the gross abuses that happen to women starts with this premise that they are less than, and one of the pieces that sent us from the table was not having what you need for menstrual care. Literally: don’t be here, don’t be present, you don’t have a solution. And finding a solution wasn’t primary, is a place where this gap widened.

And I have to tell you, we once were approached by a group of women, professional women who had created a network that they would invest money in, and the proceeds of their profits would be given annually to a nonprofit, a few nonprofits, one of them the primary beneficiary. Days for Girls, after a lot of talking and presentation was chosen by this group of executive powerful women to receive a significant amount of funding. We were so excited. And then I got an email that came back, just an email. That said we actually have decided that we just can’t do this. We can’t make menstruation the thing that we’re investing in. And as only our second investment, it just will send a statement, we face so much of the glass ceiling being so difficult to break through. And then to identify with one of the things that is held us back, we just can’t do it, we apologize. And I was stunned that these professionals who had gone through the process had to step away. This was early on, there wasn’t as much awareness about this, not as many conversations about this. But on the other hand, is that surprising because truly, there’s that much stigma and shame. So if you live in Nepal, and you’re in western Nepal, and you literally can’t be in your home, because you’re considered untouchable, you’ll bring a curse on the family. And if you are a woman, who was a carefree girl, able to go to school, and then you start this process, and everything we associate with blood is injury, injury or illness and, and you’re told that now you can’t be with your family, when you’re doing this, you’re unclean, you could bring a curse on their family, you could cause a fortune, someone can even die. Livestock could die. And you’re literally under a crawlspace. Or with the oxen or in the forest or in a shed made just for this time, and it’s cold, and you’re at risk of literally dying of exposure snake bites, the very least being bit by insects, and alone and cold. If you hold that, how do you feel anything but less than if your basic biology is betraying you? For me, this conversation of shifting that stigma is actually at the root – at the base – of how we bought into the lie that women should ever be less than completely at the table. I believe this is one of the roots to it. So for me, I am a lion about this because we must change this. This isn’t just something to celebrate changing. And to know we can change, we must, because we need everybody to show up with full strength, every day with dignity and hope – no matter where they’re from, no matter what their circumstances, and certainly no matter what their gender is. And this held powerful women in a belief that they were less than. And to this day, the fact that it’s hard to talk about only strengthens that lie of inequity. This is something we can shift with correct solutions that work and conversations and education. How amazing is that? I love, lov,e love that this is one of the things that is at the root because this? This one we’ve got.

Jessica Wiliams 33:06
Yeah, I love that too. And, you know, I have you to thank for teaching me that. You know, and I’m curious what you think of, you know, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I liken it to the basic level of like, safety and security and food and water and a roof over your head – like it is at that basic level. And if you can’t overcome that, right, then how are you going to achieve all these like, higher level things in your life, like self actualization and all of that. So I’m curious what you think about that?

Celeste Mergens 33:44
Oh, 100% agree with you. Of course it is a basic human right. And so pivotal to women. Do you know all over the world, women are expected to go work in the field and hold primary responsibility for the children and manage their menstruation without what they need, or do all the things to be cheerful and keep going and to also have to deal with not having what you need? And stigma and shame about something that takes three to five or even more days of your life, and you’re literally isolated or not able to be in confidence. It’s 3,000 days in a woman’s life on average, almost eight years, although personally, I always would have said it was more than that. I believe that this is one of those key foundational things that if we ensure women have it, menstruators have it, then they can stand stronger. I am so glad we’re having this conversation now. And what if we had it sooner? And the other piece for me that comes to mind is, if this is one of the keys to reversing cycles of poverty, inequity and violence – and I believe that it is, we’ve got a lot of evidence for that – what other keys are we missing? Because we are not asking the questions. What other things are we missing? I’m just so glad we found and are addressing this one.

Jessica Wiliams 35:14
So when you are thinking about the future of Days for Girls, and your mission to reach every girl, everywhere, period – what do you think is the biggest challenge standing in your way from achieving that goal?

Celeste Mergens 35:30
I think that it’s beyond good. Actually, it’s going really well, if you want. Governments are starting to convene for this, multilaterals are starting… more and more people are talking about this, more and more awareness about this. In 2015, NPR declared that the year the period, and they didn’t mean punctuation. Like it’s building, in my opinion, and with the strategy of Days for Girls, where we feel the next piece is so important, and a full half of what we do is to help local leaders own the solution. So making sure that that local leaders are able to be ambassadors of health, lead their community in shattering the stigma, to lead the conversations, and to do what they wouldn’t naturally do for free because they’ve experienced the consequences of not having what they need. Like my friend, Alice, who couldn’t sit for exams, well, because she didn’t have a pad and didn’t do as well on the exam that she would have otherwise, she’s an Enterprise leader with Days for Girls, and is in Kenya and she is employing many people to make Days for Girls Kits and to call on her community leaders and organizations and Days for Girls supporters to join her and helping the community leaders themselves. Talk about this, be educated, there are photos of her standing on a table in front of a field of people and holding up educational materials. And you could just see her whole being is all in.

A really important part of this to us is making sure that there is income possibility for people who are willing, able and completely dedicated to shattering the stigma where they are. So it’s owned by them, led by them, and advanced by them. This proved truly important during COVID, because nobody could get there with solutions and often disposable single use products were even less useful. And by the way, the very first time we did the distribution, I had provided some disposable to get them through until we brought washables, and there’s no place to throw them away. There’s there’s no disposable system. So they were clogging the latrines and piled against posts and people were reusing them – to dispose the product and wash it and put it on a window seal and try using it again. So stigma and health and limitations. Having a supply you need to count on is important. And women like Alice and others like her, and men, all over the world, gathering to say, we are leading this, we know what works for our community. And we’re calling on our community members to to expand how many people have what they need, and to shatter the stigma. That’s where we’re at right now. And the strategy and pieces to make that scalable. So there’s just add more resources, keep going – is the piece that we’re on right now. And it’s working.

Jessica Wiliams 38:48
So let’s let’s dig into that a little bit, about the local leaders and how Days for Girls is using that solution to reach every girl, everywhere, period. How does that work? Take me into that, that program, that system, and how you’re accessing these local leaders and getting them engaged and involved.

Celeste Mergens 39:08
They find us. Nonprofits find us to partner, or they find us and learn about us often. This is something they’ve really been seeking how to do, and then they lean into it. Days for Girls supporters make it possible for them to start their enterprises and the education that we’ve developed over the years with over 70 iterations. Our Kits have had 30 iterations. So that inclusive conversation about user feedback driving what is, we share that with them and then they become the leaders to do the education. They become the leaders to to bring everyone in and it’s not easy. Honestly, it’s a little bit like asking an Avon lady to not only be the person going door to door, but also inviting a whole field of people, also, to make the lipstick and mix the chemicals and decide what color to put in. Because, while we help with supply, supply chain is our Tetris level 12 3d because you know, getting consistent qualities and making as much of it local as we can, while making sure that these are durable and comfortable, is an important part of the puzzle. We also have volunteers all over the world that you described earlier, that are just phenomenal. And what they do is make Days for Girls where they are with volunteers, send them with organizations that are already working in communities and know it and are experts in working with that community. And then make sure that the education is part of it.

We have had to as this movement grows, pivot to identifying Zones. Phenomenal team members have helped comb out which parts of the planet are already being held really well by strong Enterprise leaders. So they’ve got this! Just help make sure that conversation of what is needed to support them is there. And the volunteers are now pivoting to things like urgent needs like refugees or emergency situations, and also places in the world where the menstrual health conversation is not yet as developed. To go into those communities and focus there and really seed the opportunity, awareness, because when you first hear about a washable pad, you think of girls or menstruators who use corn hubs, newspaper mattress, stuffing, feathers, leather straps, holes, dug in the sand, all sorts of solutions, up to and including cow dung that is splattered, and they shake out the bugs and then break into little pieces and use that as a pad. So all over, they’re using whatever they can use. And often suffering the consequence of health issues of knowing it doesn’t work. And one of the things they’ll often use is fabric folded up, but not secured and not having a moisture barrier to keep it from leaking. So they literally have trouble sitting for fear of a stain, have trouble walking for fear it will fall out. So when we say washable, the mindset is that that’s what we’re talking about. And it’s not until they see a product that women like them innovated, with their feedback, that they go: oh, no, this really can work for me. Then they can start the process of leaders, like you described, how do we find them, they start showing up and saying, I want to do this, I want to help with this. And it’s their initiative that really leads the way to them being identified as a strong leader for their community, a strong voice and a powerful set of hands that is inviting their community. Let’s get this done.

Jessica Wiliams 43:09
So I know you get asked a lot. Do these local leaders, are they running for-profit businesses? Can you explain that model?

Celeste Mergens 43:16
That’s the goal. I mean, that’s the goal. And sometimes people are like, what! They need them, how can they afford them? But here’s the truth. If they’re not, they’re not making an empire. Only if you’re talking about their community being stronger by “being an empire,” in that case they are, but they’re not making – they’re making enough money that they can make the product, keep it affordable, and afford to keep doing it while caring for their family. And by making it local, they don’t have to go to a factory somewhere to work. They don’t have to go away from their family, they can be in their community with their family already having other things they’re responsible for with their family. They don’t have to travel to do this. They they can do it where they are in just travel when they’re doing the education piece. And by being paid to make them. This makes it so they can do that and have a good living. For instance, I was once in Uganda and a woman named Christine was talking to me and I asked her the question, how’s it going? And how do you feel about doing your Enterprise and how has it changed things for you? And as she talked with me, she said, my community knows who I am. And they listen to me. My family can eat every day, and my children can go to school. I was surprised about the order that that was in. I’m so grateful for all those impacts for her and how significant that her first statement was: people, my community, knows who I am and they listen to me. I think all the facets of that change in lives are very important. And that is, yes, they make money. And they turn it into wellness for their family and wellness for their community. And they use it as the fire to keep the engine going. And to reach more.

Jessica Wiliams 45:19
You truly are turning periods into pathways, right?

Celeste Mergens 45:22
Yes, absolutely.

Jessica Wiliams 45:26
I often say, you even did it for me. Because, you know, I was hungry for a job like this. Just, you know, aching in my bones to like work for an organization like this. And so I truly feel like menstruation has given me a job! And so you know, I had a lot of women at Days for Girls feel that way. I know. So it’s really it’s really amazing. Celeste, you get asked a lot, because I see you speak a lot, and people often say, well, I don’t understand why… why not just like ship them a bunch of disposables, or give them menstrual cups. And so can you explain why washables are so powerful.

Celeste Mergens 46:05
You know, menstrual cups are actually a great solution. It is one of the solutions we offer because they last up to 10 years, take little water. But honestly, only about 3-4% of those we serve are open to using them, either culturally or physically or just aversion to inserting things or just personally not yet ready to try that. And so you have to meet people where they are. And the truth is, if you look at aisles of menstrual products, it’s a big aisle. There are a lot of different kinds of products there. And so to expect one solution to work for everyone is not a realistic expectation. And to not offer a washable solution is, I think, a global thing that is equally important to shift. If you have something you can count on month after month, if it’s this little bundle of a pad that can be in your glove compartment or your purse, and no matter what happens to economic supply chain resources in your community, that you have something you can count on. Is is freedom.

I was once in Nepal and a woman was explaining what it was like for her to experience Chhaupadi. And she explained…for five days we can’t eat what our family’s food is for, what our family’s eating, for five days we are alone. And getting to see her see a washable pad that she could count on month after month. And what if instead of having to be isolated to practice Chhaupadi, what if she could just ritually cleanse this and, and use this for her days? And she said, then we will be free. If you don’t have what you need, it’s truly bondage by your basic biology, and and how can it not affect your confidence? So women, menstruators and girls all over the world should have what they need. And to have it be a washable alternative is not only less likely to have toxic chemicals, not only come more comfortable the first time, not only something she can count on month after month, but also better for the environment. And so does that mean everybody should just use washables? I think everybody should have what they can count on – everybody should have what works for them. And washable pads are a smart choice. And our innovation had to go through 30 iterations because we needed to make it so that it could wash with a little water. And so it didn’t look like a pad, so she could hang it out with confidence, and that it hid stains. And so they’re colorful and they’re innovative and they do wash with little water and dry quickly. We don’t have not had a lot of innovations for menstrual care. And we need to because this is half of our population on this planet. It should be like a thing we’re going all in for. And washable solutions, in my opinion, are the future.

Jessica Wiliams 49:26
When you think back on the evolution of Days for Girls, you know it kind of started with mobilizing these volunteers. So I’m imagining like, ladies just sitting around the sewing table, you know, sewing…maybe some men too. And then it evolved to: okay, you’ve got the Social Entrepreneurs, the local leaders. Is there ever a vision for creating like a factory, or like a for-profit model, where you’re selling these washable Days for Girls pads to the general public.

Celeste Mergens 50:03
Such a good question. Yes, yes there is. We have a brand new iteration that is also patented. And we’re so excited about exploring it to make it available to the general public. There’s a team working on that launch and feasibility right now. And we felt like that’s an important part, the proceeds will go to days for girls International, and they’ll be available to the general public. And it’s also about showing that washable solutions are a smart choice, no matter where you live. We also are gearing up for larger manufacturing capacity in Kenya right now, actually. And the reason for that that doesn’t negate the importance of – to your question earlier about, you know, why don’t we just ship in a lot of pads made somewhere else. The local leaders are important for all the reasons we’ve talked about. And also so they can stay in place and not have to go to a factory, that they can hold their roles and be confident and do the things where they can be leaders in their community, but not have to travel and leave their family unless they want to. But also, at the same time, being able to meet larger orders from government and from multilateral organizations of 90,000 at a time, not just 100, or 500, is a combination that we’re aware of, that manufacturing facet is important. It’s one of the things in our future, and bring that together with everywhere having the option of a really positive period product that is adjustable to their personal flow and needs and also cheerful and also comfortable, is an important part of kind of bringing it back full circle. So yes, however, we are absolutely all in with the belief that the local Enterprise leader is still just as important. That having it be locally-held in a way that she is employed. Once, in Zimbabwe, there was a woman who was an early Ambassador of Women’s Health, this was 2010. And I learned afterwards when I checked in with them, that she had been skipping meals. So she could use meal money or food money to go get on buses to go to schools, to teach them about their periods and to get products to them. And she was a person who was on antiretroviral meds for HIV. And so her, being able to eat made her medication more effective. This woman was literally risking her life, to go increase menstrual equity and stability for her communities. And making sure that local piece in place, makes it possible for people like her to do it, but also sustain a quality life.

Jessica Wiliams 53:10
Wow. It’s amazing what women will do to support other women. I tell ya, it’s pretty phenomenal. All right, so I want to wrap up. But before we go, how can people who want to help Days for Girls, what’s the number one thing that Days for Girls needs right now? How can they help?

Celeste Mergens 53:35
Funding? I know everybody says that, but this is true, we have a solution that’s working. Having more people show up who want to invest in this future equity, and can be helping pass the word. So you can follow us on social media, you can tell other people about this, you can be one of the impossible people to talk to complete strangers about periods, or your friends and family – that’s even easier for some of us. And you can also volunteer at a chapter or team. When COVID opens up again, you’ll be able to help with your own two hands. You can look at our website and see which piece of our work really resonates with you, because you don’t have to be a sewer to work with Days for Girls. You don’t even have to be comfortable talking to complete strangers, but you can be part of the shift in the world. So there’s a place for everybody at this opportunity to make a difference in the world.

Jessica Wiliams 54:34
Well, I’ve just enjoyed this conversation so much! It’s been fun to approach it with a beginner’s mind. And go back to some some of these questions and dive deeper. So thank you so much for your time, Celeste, and for being such an inspiration and a model for women and men all over the world.

Celeste Mergens 54:53
My pleasure.

Jessica Wiliams 54:56
The Days for Girls Podcast is produced by Days for Girls International. For shownotes and resources mentioned in this episode, visit daysforgirls.org/podcast. If you’d like to support the work we do on the show, leave a rating or a review wherever you listen, subscribe to the show, and share our episodes on social media for with your friends. To learn more about Days for Girls and to join our global movement, please visit daysforgirls.org. Thank you for listening. See you next time.

 

 

Jessica Williams
Jessica Williams is Chief Communications Officer of Days for Girls International. She is also the host of The Days for Girls Podcast. Jessica holds a Bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest University in Communications and a Master’s degree in Strategic Communications from The University of Oregon. She is also an adjunct instructor for the University of Portland’s Pamplin School of Business Nonprofit MBA program.