“Days For Girls International”…Tackling Cultural Taboos

By Pam McLoughlin
New Haven Register, Conn.

NEW HAVEN

People are used to hearing about initiatives that provide food and water to less-developed countries, but Celeste Mergens admits there are varied reactions when she first brings up her pet topic: menstruation.

Some folks blush, others move away and some even pop their eyes wide open.

“It takes a special person to take on menstruation,” quipped Mergens, founder and executive director of Days for Girls International, a grassroots organization that brings sustainable menstruation products to women in more than 75 countries on 6 continents.

But her listeners usually refocus fast, as Mergens takes the menstruation talk to a new level: for girls and women in less developed, typically male-dominated countries, cultural taboos around that time of month can mean cruel exclusion from everyday life; several missed school days per month, leading many to drop out; a sense of shame and taunting by others. It amounts to violence against women and oppression, Days for Girls advocates say.

“It’s phenomenal how wide the net of impact is,” she said, referring to the washable menstruation kits.

With no sanitary supplies, women have been forced to sit on cardboard during their period, with no access to food or water for days or in some places use dirt, leaves or corn husks to stop bleeding. In some places, Mergens said, women have been sexually exploited by teachers in exchange for a sanitary pad.

She said menstruation is nothing to be ashamed of because it’s so important to life and part of the goal in the far away countries is to end the “taboo.”

“It’s time to break the shame and end the silence,” Mergens said.

Mergens, a mother of six and grandmother of 12, is making a whirlwind tour of the New Haven area this week to talk about the importance of her organization that is run on donations and volunteers.

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