Days For Girls: A Simple Menstrual Pad Changes Lives For Girls In Impoverished Countries

Ladies sewing
Photo by Diana Greenberg

Universally, every girl gets their period and has a need for sanitary products. It’s a natural part of life. However, a menstrual equity gap exists for girls living in impoverished countries.

Celeste Mergens was working with an orphanage through a family foundation in Nairobi, Kenya. Postelection violence increased the number of children at the orphanage from 400 to 1,400. She discovered that due to an absence of menstrual supplies, the girls had to wait in their rooms on days when they were menstruating and sit on cardboard. They often went without food on these days, unless someone brought it to them. After missing 48 or more days of school per year, the girls often dropped out. Having something as simple as a menstrual pad means the girls can receive an education and earn an income, which increases their opportunities to care for themselves and their families.

What was desperately needed in Kenya and many other parts of the world was access to feminine hygiene items. Celeste founded Days for Girls (DfG) in 2008 to address this situation. Looking for a sustainable solution, a cloth menstrual pad was designed that could be washed and reused.

Photograph by Diana Greenberg

The patented reusable pad made by DfG requires very little water to clean, dries quickly, and lasts years with proper care. It’s part of a kit assembled by volunteers in teams across the world. Helping make a difference in the lives of girls and women who live in impoverished countries resonates in many women’s hearts. Women across the world have helped the organization reach more than one million women and girls in more than 116 countries.

Locally, a DfG team meets monthly at Blue Bar Quilts, 6333 University Avenue in Middleton. The team stores their donated fabric and supplies here and sews from 10 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on the second Tuesday of every month and an occasional Saturday.

Blue Bar Quilts, which opened in April 2017, was co-founded by Gael Boyd and Diana Greenberg. When DfG team leader Nancy Jarvis approached them, the community-minded duo felt they were made for each other. The store seemed to have everything the nonprofit needed: 5,800 square feet of space on one level; a triple-wide ramp making the space accessible and easy to roll in sewing machines and equipment; a large classroom to accommodate 20 sewing machines; good lighting; a separate dye studio where the group can make a mess when adding color to plain fabric and panties; quilters who are expert seamstresses and enjoy making things for others; quilters who have extra fabric to donate; and a significant following and community reach to help with fabric donations, supplies, and money.

Photograph by Diana Greenberg

“The volunteers love sewing with a purpose and enjoy talking and laughing as they work,” says Nancy. A typical week has 12 to 15 volunteers ranging from ages 10 to 85 who drop in as their schedules allow. You don’t have to be a seamstress to volunteer. Those who don’t sew cut the fabric and ribbon or help assemble kits. The quilters will sew the shields.

The reusable pads are very well constructed to ensure they can last for three to four years. Volunteers sew an overlock stitch on the inside edge and reinforce the stitching. The soft flannel liners are designed to look like a washcloth so it’s not embarrassing to put on a clothesline. They are two layers thick in the middle so that when it’s trifolded it has six layers where it’s most needed. The liner tucks into a shield made of cotton fabric with a polyurethane-coated, waterproof layer in the middle. The shield snaps around the girl’s underwear to hold it in place. To hide stains, the reusable pad is made with colorful fabric. If the donated fabric is white or light colored, it is taken to the dye studio.

The pads are part of a DfG kit distributed in a drawstring cloth storage bag. The bag is made with fun patterns and colors so it doesn’t look like it contains menstrual supplies. The girls can store their supplies in it or wear it over their shoulders as a backpack. The kit includes a menstrual chart and pictorial instruction sheet, two shields, eight liners, two pairs of colorful underwear, and a washcloth. Two gallon-sized Ziploc freezer bags are also included along with a bar of soap to allow the items to be washed.

Photograph by Diana Greenberg

The Middleton DfG team has made and sent 140 kits to Malawi and 40 kits to Manila in the Philippines; Bali, a province of Indonesia; and Ethiopia. This team has found that 40 kits fit into a U-Haul medium box, which is easiest to ship. Teams are empowered by DfG to use their own contact opportunities to distribute the kits on their own to places where they are needed.

To help construct DfG kits, contact Nancy at middletonwi@daysforgirls.org to get more information. Most sewers bring their own sewing machine, but the group has a donated sewing machine and two sergers from The Sewing Machine Project in Monona along with various sewing supplies.

Donations of colorful flannel and stain-hiding fabric are always welcome. Fabric should be batik, geometric, floral, or quilt-type fabric. To comply with cultural restrictions, they’re unable to accept fabrics with camouflage, brands, or animals. Fabric donations can be dropped off at Blue Bar Quilts. No money is used for overhead so 100 percent of financial donations are used for kit materials. Donations are used to purchase underwear, washcloths, Ziploc bags, and soap, as well as covering shipping costs. Go to daysforgirls.org and specify that you’d like your donation to go to the Middleton, Wisconsin, team.

Lauri Lee owns Communication Concepts, a marketing communications business in Madison.