Empowering women: Celeste Mergens and the fight against period poverty

7 min read

It was a dull, grey evening in London and I was preparing to interview Celeste Mergens – at 10pm due to the time difference with Seattle. Celeste is the founder and CEO of Days for Girls International (DfG), an organisation that distributes reusable period kits and education to girls and women in need all over the world. I didn’t know what to expect from a late-night conversation about period poverty, but I didn’t think it was going to be uplifting. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

It might sound cheesy to say that Celeste Mergens burst on to the laptop screen like a sunbeam, but that’s the only way I can describe her energy and infectious passion for what she does. The work DfG does is far from being all sunshine and rainbows – they confront upsetting subjects every day – but Celeste’s attitude seems to remain resolutely optimistic and energised. Skype Celeste and within seconds, her 230,000 TEDx talk viewers and a feature in Oprah’s O magazine start to make sense.

Admittedly the timing is good; there’s plenty to celebrate at the moment. After years of tireless work distributing DfG’s period kits, educating girls and women about their bodies, and campaigning to break the period taboo, finally the mainstream is starting to take notice.

The day we worked for for the last 10 years is here!” beams Celeste, raising her hands in victory. “People understand this is an issue now and the demand around the globe is almost unimaginable. When DfG first started and I would tell people we have to fix this, they’d go, ‘Oh come on, you know that’s not real, it’s 2008.’ So to reach 124 nations on six continents and to see the huge impact it makes… I am so profoundly grateful to be part of that movement. The time has come and I am so overjoyed! But also I’m not getting much sleep!”

For Celeste, fighting poverty isn’t just a part-time job – it’s personal. “I happen to be someone who’s experienced hunger,” she says matter-of-factly. “As a child I went homeless during periods of my life, and I’d go without food for several days sometimes.” Celeste’s family moved 32 times before she reached the age of 13, and her childhood was filled with abuse and chaos. Yet a full understanding of how many women in poverty lack access to period products – and the huge impact that has – came later in life.

This blind spot around menstruation is a widespread problem. I tell Celeste that despite working on content about periods every day, the reality of period poverty didn’t truly hit home for me until I read It’s Only Blood by Anna Dahlqvist. The book includes interviews with girls living and menstruating in extreme poverty. Reading their stories of bleeding on to rags and having nowhere to wash or dry them was a revelation for me. I wonder if Celeste had a similar moment of realisation in which the truth of the situation suddenly hit her?

I happen to be someone who’s experienced hunger,” she says matter-of-factly

I find it so amazing how if we really look, all of our experiences lead us to a place,” she says. “My journey with DFG is really a testament to that. I’d been working in Kenya on sustainable solutions so that communities could help themselves. While I was there, a dignitary invited us to go and see an orphanage. My first response was ‘that’s going to break my heart’ but I believe in saying yes, and, long story short, I started helping.

Then the post-election violence of 2007 – 8 happened and suddenly this way-too-crowded orphanage had 1,400 kids in it. We were getting all these calls for things they needed and I was awake well into the night considering how to raise more money just to feed them, because they’d been out of food for two days. I went to bed pleading for an answer, then woke up at 2.30am with a thought going through my head: ‘Have you asked what the girls are doing for feminine hygiene?’ I literally gasped, ran to the computer and got an immediate answer: ‘Nothing. They wait in their rooms.’ Well, how do you possibly do that when you’re in a room with 50 kids? How do you ‘wait in your room’? And it turned out that they would sit on a piece of cardboard – for days.

I wish I could tell you I realised then that it was global, but I didn’t. I thought, ‘In this instance, this has to change.’ I knew that if I sent money for disposable products and they needed food, they would use the money for food. And they should! So how do I make sure the girls have what they need? So we designed the first washable pads.”

My next question was, ‘Who talks to them about what a period is?’”

By Celeste’s own admission, those early pads were very different from the kits DfG distributes today. “It was a truly awful design, and I can say that because I designed it! They were white, because sanitary pads in my world are white. But would you and I want to hang a menses day pad-looking thing in our front yard? I didn’t think of that, but I did know to ask. The girls explained, ‘We’re putting it under our bed because there’s no way we can hang this out.’ They had lots to teach us along the way. We’ve had 28 versions of our pad. The new version washes with very little water. It dries quickly. It’s comfortable. It can be layered for your personal flow needs each day. And it’s colourful!” [DfG also has menstrual cups, but only 3% of the people they serve are open to using them.]

It was only after the first kits were distributed that Celeste began to realise the true scale of the problem, however. “We were passing out the DfG kits and the girls were so happy,” she remembers. “My next question was, ‘Who talks to them about what a period is?’ and they said ‘No one – you can do that!’ I tried to find non-profits doing this but nothing was out there.”

Celeste knew the power of education to open doors; she found her way out of poverty via grants to study at MIT and BYU. So she brought in a local friend to conduct a session for 500 girls about consent and self-defence. “I’m standing with a group of girls who know me and they said, ‘Thank you so much, because until you came along, we had to let them use us if we wanted to leave the room to go to class,’ Celeste remembers with emotion in her voice. “I’m thinking, ‘Please tell me that doesn’t mean what I think it means.’ Later we chatted again and they confirmed it. They were being sexually exploited in exchange for a single disposable pad. And that was the moment Days for Girls was born.”

Celeste is still moved by the fact that educating girls about periods has proved to be a catalyst for social change. “That something so simple could be so pivotal to greater dignity and equity in our world is astonishing,” she says. “It wakes me up every morning at 4.30 because I’m ready to get started again!”

They were being sexually exploited in exchange for a single disposable pad. And that was the moment Days for Girls was born

It’s truly awe inspiring to realise how wide-reaching the ripple effects can go. “It is so big,” explains Celeste. “The girls stand up to child exploitation and other abuses that were endemic to their community. They are able to go to school. They are able to go to work. In so many communities, when you’re a young girl, you’re able to play and do things. Then you hit menstruation and suddenly your dynamic with your whole community changes. You’re eligible for marriage now. It’s, ‘Don’t go near boys or men. Stay in the hut, stay in your room.’ Or it’s, ‘Now you are untouchable and unclean. What you’re doing is a sin.’

The very way you perceive yourself in relation to your community has shifted,” Celeste explains. “In many cases, you don’t even know what this thing is. Everything you associate with blood is injury or illness. And now you’re afraid. But we get to see that changing, all over the world. We get to see her say, ‘Oh! Without periods there would be no people? This whole time, this thing that I had was a gift and a strength? I’m not unclean? I’m not untouchable?’”

Celeste’s voice wavers as she speaks about the transformations she witnesses. “Suddenly, you can see a girl stand taller. When we say, ‘That thing that happened to you when you were shifting from girl to woman – the truth is you are now greater, not less.’ That changes everything.”

It’s inspiring to hear Celeste talk about this transformation, but I’m pretty sure that, faced with the same situations Celeste has confronted, I’d run away and hide under a duvet. How does she channel her dismay over the pure scale of the problem into positive action? She answers easily. “That is rooted in the firm belief that we can do this. I’ve seen women are amazing, communities are amazing, men are amazing. We just were lost in stigma and shame.

There are so many things that are hard to change in our world,” says Celeste. “This isn’t one of them. This is something we can do, and we can call it done.”

Celeste’s top three quick and easy ways to help

1) Talk about it. “Telling people about Days for Girls – and others that are standing up – is really important. Support is wonderful, but it’s also about breaking the taboo all over this planet. Let’s be honest, people would rather talk about diarrhoea than menstruation. What is that?! Why?!!”

2) Try something new. “This is going to sound funny, but consider using reusable products. Disposable products are considered aspirational all over the world. But again, why? Consider a cup, or washable pads – what if you tried it?”

3) Join the hashtag. “We have a campaign coming up in October called #NeverAlonePeriod. The goal is for us all to talk about this, and to reach 100,000 women and girls in less than a month. That’s an audacious goal but we can do it. We’re not talking about, ‘We’ll get there someday’ or ‘within this generation’. We’re talking now. We’re saying you don’t have to wait in the shed anymore. You don’t have to be a foster girl or a homeless woman ashamed and trading sex for a pad anymore. You are not alone.”

Callaly is donating 1% of our sales to Days for Girls in 2018, and earlier this year we bought a die-cutting machine for DfG’s West London chapter. If you’d like to donate money or time, visit the DfG website here.

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