By Pam McLoughlin New Haven Register, Conn.
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.
Mergens began her visit to this area in New York City speaking to the United Nations' Mission on the Status of Women and moved on to the home of Mary Ann and Dr. Ralph Stroup, who have established a Days for Girls chapter in Orange and with the help of their huge volunteer team just completed 1,000 menstruation kits to be shipped to Kenya.
Her trip will culminate in a talk Saturday at Trinity Church on the Green in New Haven, the Stroups' church, where Mergens will speak at 1 p.m. after a fundraising Soup-athon luncheon from noon to 1 p.m. From 9 a.m. to noon, a sew-athon event to make the kits will be held.
Anyone interested in learning more about the organization or volunteering is welcome to attend any or all parts of the day. This week, Mergens will have visited Quinnipiac Medical School, Dixwell Congregational Church, Amity High School, Yale affiliated groups and more to stump for the cause.
Mary Ann Stroup has said she loves the idea of "creating a sisterhood around the world," and that women need to be empowered through education in order to lift Third World countries. The menstruation kits, made of colorful fabric, include lessons on the male and female anatomy, information on reproductive health, diseases and the right of women to say "no" in a male-dominated society, she has said.
The Stroups are founders of the Kenyan Health Care Initiatives -- or KHCI -- which has a broader mission of raising money to build health care clinics in remote areas of profound poverty. The couple thought the menstruation products cause was a logical branching after learning of the need while visiting Kenya as part of KHCI work.
The Stroups raise money and awareness of their causes by talking to civic groups and forming partnerships with churches. For more information, email them at [email protected] or visit the website.