Celeste Mergens, Founder and CEO of Days For Girls International, provides the first Days For Girls health and menstrual hygiene training and kit distribution in Guyana in a village near Georgetown.
- In a nutshell what is Days for Girls International (DFG)?
We are an award-winning non-profit international organization that is creating a more dignified, humane and equitable world for girls and women through advocacy, reproductive health awareness, education, and sustainable feminine hygiene. We believe that no woman or girl should go without monthly menstrual supplies, which is a link to stigma, shame, exploitation, infection, missed opportunities for school and work, and teenage pregnancies, all perpetuating the cycle of poverty. DFG is now in 87 countries on six continents! Guyana is the 87th country where we serve!
- Your current Annual Report is titled: “Connect the Dots, Women, Health and Sustainability” This speaks to the heart of the empowerment of women, can you tell us a few of your success stories ?
The “dots” have only recently been “connected’ because people have resisted talking about menstruation. For centuries, this topic has been shrouded in myth and notions that women are“dirty” because they menstruate. Talking about it is deemed embarrassing, impolite, and a personal matter. So the questions just aren’t generally asked: “Why do girls drop out of school in such large numbers when they reach puberty?” “Why do poor women have difficulty keeping jobs?” “What do poor women do when they menstruate?”
When women are so poor that they have to choose between food and hygiene, they choose food every time.
In 1957 I lived in the remote Guyana interior near the Venezuela border. I was 13 years old and menstruation was a topic on my mind. I remember asking, “What do the Arecuna and Akawaio women do when they have their periods?” I was told, “The Amerindians have their ways.” It turns out that they do the same thing that poor women all over the world do when they have no access to pads, or don’t have money to buy them. They wait 5 or more days every month, someplace where they won’t be embarrassed by stains and shame from the lack of supplies. They generally sit in isolation (often without adequate food and water) and use leaves, wild cotton, what fabric they can find, mattress stuffing—anything. Often they have NO reliable sanitary solutions.
Isn’t it incredible that one of the solutions to breaking the cycle of poverty fits in our hands—affordable, sustainable, available, and hygienic pads!
DFG has over 450 teams and chapters around the world with members who are sewing kits. These kits include two shields that guard against leaks, eight trifold liners that don’t look like pads but are very absorbent, two panties, a wash cloth, soap, pictorial instructions, a menstrual cycle tracking calendar, two zip lock bags—and it is all packed in a pretty drawstring bag.
We found that in Guyana, on average, one month’s supply of disposable pads cost about G$1,500 or about US$7.50. A DFG kit costs about G$2,000 or US$10. So, for the cost of a little more than one month’s supply, a woman can buy a sustainable DFG deluxe kit that will last her up to FOUR YEARS!
DFG started in Kenya in 2008 by Celeste Mergens, Founder and CEO. It is the women and girls who use these kits that designed and developed them.
Celeste’s motto is, “Honor the wisdom of the people we serve.” These kits have now undergone 27 revisions and innovations, based on the feedback of women and girls all over the world. They can be washed with very little water, guard against leaks, dry quickly in the sun without embarrassment, and are hygienic, non-toxic, and sustainable.
3. On a recent visit to Guyana, a team from Days for Girls traveled to some communities. Where and what were these experiences like?
Celeste Mergens and I flew to Georgetown September 20, 2015. She was able to stay for a week and I stayed an additional 3 weeks. When planning the trip, I was told to not be surprised if the kits would not be accepted in Guyana. Some comments were: “The Amerindians are too shy to talk about the subject.” “People won’t want to admit that they are too poor to buy hygiene products.” “Guyanese are too proud to talk about it.” “Guyana is different.” “You’ll never get permission from village councils to meet with people about this.” “You’ll embarrass people.” “The men won’t like it.” In actuality, we found none of these comments to be true. We visited a village very near Georgetown, a boarding school in Bartica, a village on the road system, but quite far south of Bartica, and a remote village, a 3 day walk from Venezuela with the only access by small plane, foot, or canoe. Before the training sessions and distributions at schools we talked with local leadership, including the Toashaos (Village chiefs) and parents. Without exception, we were welcomed with great warmth and hospitality.
All kits distributed during this trip were donated by teams of sewers from many locations throughout the world. None of the kits were sold because the purpose of this trip was to determine if the kits would be accepted in Guyana and to get feedback about their usefulness.
Men and women both came to us with amazing, but not surprisingly, heartbreaking stories of challenges surrounding this issue. Everyone we met was encouraging, enthusiastic, wanted to ask questions, be heard, wanted the kits, wanted their wives and daughters to have kits, to know more, and to know how they could help.
While in Georgetown, it was a great privilege to meet with Guyana’s First Lady, Her Excellency, Mrs. Sandra Granger. The First Lady’s emphasis on women’s issues goes hand-in-hand with what DFG brings to Guyana. We were impressed with her vision for the country, and the sense of hope that we found everywhere.
L to R: Celeste Mergens, Founder & CEO of DFG, Her Excellency Mrs. Sandra Granger, and Miriam Lancaster, DFG Guyana Liaison. Photo by Gerhard Ramsaroop
- What are the common challenges facing some of the women you have met in Guyana?
After a kit distribution in a remote village in Region 7, a woman caught up with me on the trail as I walked. She said, “I have 5 daughters. I can barely feed them. How can I buy pads for them?” She had tears in her eyes as she spoke. “These kits will make a great difference in our lives. My girls can go to school and I can work my farm.”
A woman from a village south of Bartica came to us and said, “You must go to the Rupununi. I am from that area. We are very poor and school girls tear material from their uniforms to use when their menstruation starts. They want to stay in school. They have no monthly supplies so they have no choice.” The First Lady also told us, “You must go to the Rupununi. They are so poor, and this drought is devastating the region.” We heard similar stories elsewhere. In a village near Georgetown, when asked, “What do you do when you can’t afford pads?” A young woman’s reply was, “We tear cloth from our blouses.”
- A fascinating arm of your project is the Days for Girls kit. Tell us more about these kits and why are they so useful?
There is nothing new about washable menstrual supplies. Our mothers and grandmothers probably used cloth. The DFG design, however, is a modern solution. Our innovative design comes from the feedback of thousands of women, plus the addition of modern moisture barrier fabrics, resulting in this unique, suitable, safe, and comfortable menstrual hygiene solution.
Disposables are generally made with chemicals that can be irritating and even toxic in some cases. For example, “toxic shock syndrome” has been associated with tampons. Disposables fill pit latrines, plug plumbing, and in a landfill, take 700-800 YEARS to decompose! Disposables, especially in hot climates, can be uncomfortable. Often the adhesive that is intended to hold pads securely in the under-garment, does not stick, so pads slide out of place, causing leaks and discomfort. Disposables are generally not “breathable,” meaning that they do not allow air to pass through them, so they may cause one to perspire, providing a perfect media for bacteria to thrive.
The two piece design starts with a shield made of two layers of high quality 100% cotton plus a thin center of non-toxic, breathable, poly-urethane laminate (or PUL) that prevents leaks. The shield has a pocket at each end which holds the liner in place. The shields, holding the liners, snap into the under-garment with strong durable “KAM” snaps.
The liner is of two designs. The preferred “serged” liner consists of two strips of 100% cotton flannel. A thin strip lies within a wider strip, so that when tri-folded, the thicker portion of each liner has six layers of absorbency, while the ends fitting into the pockets have only three layers. Up to three liners can be stacked into a shield for more absorbency. The “serged” liner is made when sewers have access to a special sewing machine called a “serger.” They are fast to sew and generally there is less wasted fabric with this design.
The other liner style is also made of two layers of 100% cotton flannel, but it is cut into an octagon shape, allowing for more absorbency in the center and less thickness to fit into the pockets. We call this style a T&T (turn and tack) liner and is made by sewers who do not have access to the more expensive and difficult to maintain serger. T&T liners are sewn with a simple straight stitch, and can even be made on treadle machines where there is no electricity. The shield and drawstring bag is also sewn with a simple straight stitch on a basic sewing machine, or a treadle machine.
Another unique thing about the DFG shield and liner design is that after they are washed, they dry very quickly in the sun. They are made with pretty brightly colored fabrics and don’t look like pads. No woman or girl wants to hang something that looks like a white sanitary napkin out on a clothes line for everyone to see! The DFG liners look like a pretty handkerchief. The fabrics are high quality and have been washed so that no dyes run into the wash water. No sizing or starch remains in the fabric to irritate a girl’s skin. The thinness of the design is very important to allow for complete drying. DFG does not use thicker designs with many layers sewn together because they are more difficult to wash thoroughly and are hard to dry completely, especially in humid climates. Such conditions allow yeasts, mold, and mildew to grow and can cause itching, pain, and infections. In some locations bugs have been found to lay their eggs in the thicker portions of thicker pads. Thoroughly washing the shields and liners and drying them completely in the sun sanitizes the fabrics. These are important differences in the Days for Girls design.
- How was the kit received in Guyana? What was some of the feedback and was it useful?
We received only positive feedback. Everyone we spoke with wanted more kits. We distributed 187 full kits, 25 partial kits called “Pods” (a shield and two liners) and “Pods+” (a shield and 4 liners). We also distributed 25 Ruby Cups (that’s another product we have available that can last a woman for 10 years). Women in two villages have formed sewing groups to make their own kits! The photo hows how happy the women and girls were to get the training and the kits.
7. How can more girls and women in Guyana benefit from Days for Girls?
Teams and Chapters are the heart of making DFG a success! See our website at www.daysforgirls.org where you can learn how to form a group. Whether one sews or not, there is something anyone can do that will help women and girls in Guyana. The ultimate vision is for there to be teams and chapters in every region of Guyana.
We also offer a one to two day training called “Ambassadors of Women’s Health.” It is also offered on-line at the DFG website. To schedule training in Guyana, and to learn more ways women and girls in Guyana can benefit from Days for Girls, e-mail us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- How does Days for Girls benefit boys and men?
In Bartica we went to the office of Mr. Charles Holmes, Education Director for Region 7. “We are from an organization called “Days for Girls International,” we said as we greeted him. Mr. Holmes’ reply was, “What about Days for Boys?” That was an excellent question. We explained the program and that helping the girls with health and hygiene education plus menstrual management solutions, helps whole communities. We also provide training for boys and men.
When I was told that Guyanese men “wouldn’t like it,” we found that nothing could be farther from the truth. The fact is that Guyanese men are among our strongest and most vocal supporters. Gerhard Ramsaroop, along with his wife, Michelle, are Co-Directors of Days for Girls Guyana. They are located in Georgetown. A Guyanese-born man now living in Canada helps cut fabrics for the kits I sew and makes shield patterns guides out of plexiglas. A man in a remote village in Region 7 walked with me on the trail and kept me talking for over an hour as he asked questions. He was fascinated that at every kit distribution we teach about the menstrual cycle, including ovulation, and the days that a woman is most likely to get pregnant during her 28 day cycle. (Although we stress that it is possible to get pregnant ANY time during the cycle.) This husband had never heard this information and asked that I explain this to his (pregnant) wife. He spoke to others in the community who later came and talked to me, privately and in groups—both men and women. To almost every person, this was new information!
The truth is, when women thrive, everyone thrives. When women don’t have to choose between buying food and buying pads, money stays in the family and village. When communities form sewing groups, such as they have done in Region 7, they can sell the kits they make through a local small business “Enterprise.” DFG kits save money that families would otherwise spend on disposables, and they can earn money from the kits they sew. In these ways, money is saved and comes into the family and the village. Everyone benefits through these healthy sustainable solutions.
- Why Guyana? Why now?
When I was a young girl I was fortunate to live in Guyana (British Guiana at the time). That was 58 years ago. (Yes, I’m 71 years old!) I never forgot Guyana and always wanted to return. After completing nursing school and raising a family, I began returning from time to time to do volunteer nursing.
In 2013, when I saw Celeste Mergen’s TEDx talk about DFG, I felt an “ah ha moment” (as Oprah would say) and thought immediately of Guyana.
You can see Celeste’s TEDx talk at the following link: http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/What-Are-We-Not-Asking-Simple-S;TEDxBellingham. In this talk, Celeste tells the DFG story.
Hearing about DFG began my 2 year journey of sewing kits, encouraging friends to sew, and saving money to bring this information and kits to Guyana. Some may say that this trip was the culmination of a life-long dream to return and be of service in Guyana. But, it can’t be the culmination! To truly be effective, this has to be the beginning of a vibrant growing DFG Guyana program.
- During your visit in Guyana were you able to map a plan address the issues you identified? What is the future of Days for Girls Guyana?
Because of the geographic and other demographics of Guyana, we have to have a multifaceted approach. What will work in and near Georgetown will not necessarily work in the Pomeroon, Berbice, Lethem, or remote off-the- road-system villages, especially those near the Venezuela border and elsewhere in the hinterlands.
We are very fortunate to have a wonderful DFG founding team in Guyana. Our dedicated and enthusiastic Co-Directors are Michelle and Gerhard Ramsaroop in Georgetown. Our first Ambassador of Women’s Health in Great Diamond is Olinda Deokinandin. The first DFG sewing team is in Paruima on the Kamarang River in Region 7, led by an expert seamstress,Yvonne Andres. We have great supporters, throughout the country and elsewhere who, without them, the success of this program would not have been possible. In addition to our founding board and team members, special thanks go to Michelle’s mother of 3rd Street Alexander Village who provided a house where Celeste and I could stay and use as DFG headquarters while we were in Guyana. Also, we thank Diaanne Deoraj, Nazir Azimulla, Rudolph Mahadeo- Deoraj, Ron Hopkinson, Barbara Hopkinson, Charles Holmes, Matron Vardwatty Hinds of Davis Memorial Hospital, Capt. James Ash our GAMAS Pilot, Laura and Dan Fuller of Paruima Mission Acadamy, Jamal Goodluck of Strabroek News, and many others!
Currently we are working on getting a NGO status in Guyana. This is important on many levels and will help make us eligible for grants. Fund raising is ongoing and vital because we must establish and staff a DFG Guyana center in Georgetown that will be a supply, resource, and training hub for the regions.
The DFG model for this plan is already working well in places such as Uganda Africa. See the DFG website at www.daysforgirls.org and look at the Uganda program where they operate a “Days for Girls University” and “Enterprise” program. We have the benefit of their experience and support to develop a program fashioned after this model; but, we are building a program in Guyana that is unique—built by Guyanese with the vision to serve all of Guyana.
We are also exploring the possibility of having kit components made locally in a Georgetown garment factory. Initial contacts have been made and we are working to source appropriate fabrics, and other items—using local products whenever possible. An important goal is to start local DFG Enterprises and to keep money and other resources in Guyana.
Because of our multifaceted approach there is still a need for local sewing groups, Chapters, and Teams in all regions. DFG kit demand is huge, and will be ongoing. The need for fund raising to support these needs, including the start-up of a Center, may seem monumental. But it can be done!
When I think about Days for Girls Guyana, the foremost questions in my mind are these: Are we really serious about our Days for Girls vision of reaching all of Guyana by 2020? Or are we merely content with putting pins in the world map indicating that, yes, some kits have been distributed in Guyana?
I believe every girl and woman in Guyana can be reached and have affordable menstrual supplies and hygiene solutions that best meets their needs. We at Days for Girls International believe that every girl and woman deserve, health, education, and dignity.
Every girl! Everywhere! Period!
Who’s on board?
(Miriam Lancaster is the Days for Girls Guyana Liaison)