One Simple Kit

A community health worker teaches how to make cloth pads. Photo: Nyaya Health

A community health worker teaches how to make cloth pads. Photo: Nyaya Health

Last week, I texted a friend of mine and told her: I have a hard choice before me. When she asked what that was, I smiled as I replied: I must choose between replenishing the MAC mascara that I just ran out of and buying the new Harry Potter book. We both laughed. But really, even as a single mom who falls beneath the poverty level, this was my choice of the day.

I have known hard times. I have lived in my car with my two dogs and I have had to volunteer my time cleaning my son’s school to ensure that he gets an education because I couldn’t afford the monthly tuition. I have taken hits by the ones I love, both physical and metaphorical, and I have had my innocence stolen from me by a boy I hardly knew.

One simple kit is combating poverty, hunger, and gender inequality.

Yet somewhere across a sea, a young girl sits in her room, blood gushing from her for reasons unbeknownst to her. Fear brings tears to her eyes as she struggles to understand why God has cursed her. That is what her mother has taught her. That if such a thing occurs, it is a curse from her creator for being a filthy creature. A girl her age tells her that she has contracted a disease, something she couldn’t remember the three letters to reference, but she knew was deadly.

In a rural region in southern Malawi, a girl who has had her first period may be expected to undergo a “sexual cleansing” ritual, in which she is made to have unprotected sex with a man called a hyena — a risky proposition in a country in which nearly 1 in 10 adults has HIV. Her choice to deny such an offer could result in her entire family being stricken ill or even dead — at least that is what she is told.

I remember the first time I learned of my period. My mom told me that when I got old enough, my body’s way of expressing its maturity was through vaginal bleeding and a whole lot of moodiness. I was given a box of maxi pads and a bar of chocolate for when that day came. When it did, I found my mother at the kitchen sink to apologize for having been so grouchy lately. She hugged me, welcomed me to womanhood, and I helped her make dinner. It was no big deal. The truth is that I had my mom, my friends, my school health class, and places like Planned Parenthood to help me understand my body and the changes it was going through when I began menstruating.

What if she hadn’t told me? Worse, what if my mom had told me that menstruation made me unclean and undesired? What if she sent me to my room for the week? How would I feel if I couldn’t see my friends? How far behind would I fall if I could not attend school?

Few of us look forward to our monthly visitor. It comes with cramps, mood swings, bloating, and a host of other side effects. Some of us spend day three in bed with chick flicks and wine while others are out jogging and doing yoga. Either way, we have the choice to ride out the crimson wave how we see fit. We won’t skip out on our jobs or schooling, we still see our friends, and we can still run errands should the need arise.

In many areas, this isn’t even a fantasy. Every month, girls across the world sit in a small hut on a piece of cardboard because they have no knowledge of or access to feminine hygiene. They pray for their bleeding to stop. Some find corn husks, pieces of used cloth, stones, or leaves to alleviate their dilemma so that they may play with their friends or attend school, shocked later when they develop life-threatening infections. The only products that exist in their area are not at a grocery store or in a bathroom vending machine. They are grasped by men who demand sexual acts as a barter. Some menstrual hygiene activists doing fieldwork in these regions tell of testimonies given by girls who speak of being coerced into sex with teachers and other authority figures. In countries where condomless sex is common and prevalence of HIV and other STDs might be high, girls are at added risk when they are pressured into sex with older men. Rape and a life-threatening disease are the only welcome some of these girls ever receive to adulthood.

It was a trip to an orphanage in 2008 in the slums of Kenya and a witness to the plights of these women that triggered Celeste Mergens to design a kit that provided dignity to them, allowing them to live their lives and pursue an education. After all, a continued education is the key to ending poverty. Wiping their tears and hearing their stories, Celeste birthed the idea of Days for Girls.

Paying attention to the individual needs that she had heard directly from the girls, she sewed a reusable bag along with cloth pads and liners to offer to the girls she had met a solution to their unanswered feminine calls from nature.

Distribution began immediately and the word spread throughout impoverished countries and the developed nation of her United States home. Girls abroad were crying out for the kits, and individuals in America were yearning to offer their skills to help her keep up with the demand. The project expanded, educating women in these nations not only about their bodies and proper hygiene but also teaching them how to create a sanitary water station with minimal resources and educating midwives on alternatives to female circumcision.

I first heard of Days for Girls almost four years ago. I was on a popular local giveaway site when I saw a girl looking for fabric. She had a chapter for the organization back east and was looking to collect more supplies while on a business trip. Her post echoed the information that I am sharing here. Stories of sexual assault, loss of education, abuse, and fear. I was raped at 16 and again at 27, so these stories hit home to me. I learned Arizona didn’t have a chapter, so I started one in my kitchen with a few other gals and my very resilient boyfriend who happened to be a skilled sewer. The requests for kits were almost immediate.

I remember one weekend where we had promised 50 kits to go out and every single sewer in my group couldn’t make it to the sewing night. So my boyfriend and I spent two-and-a-half days straight sewing the kit components to make the deadline for these girls. Now we have a larger meeting spot and average 30 girls per month, but I also help facilitate women’s groups and relief societies that see 100 to 200 girls helping locally on the project! We sew, serge, snap, and pack before sending these kits all over the world. Our chapter has distributed in Tibet, Tanzania, Malawi, Syria, Mexico, and Kenya, just to name a few.

Though the kit itself has changed as a result of feedback from those they served, a decade later, Days for Girls International has distributed more than 300,000 kits with help from more than 600 chapters worldwide. Considering that each kit is carried for an average of three years, that means that 900,000 years have been given to these communities. That is 900,000 years of dignity and education for women worldwide who saw no hope.

One simple kit is combating poverty, hunger, and gender inequality, and is aiding in the fight for clean water, sanitation, education, economic growth, and sustainable communities. One simple kit is changing the world.