As the world reels from COVID-19, global NGO Days for Girls International women have found ways to continue their work with menstrual health as well as introduce new programs to educate and protect the communities they serve.
According to Celeste Mergens, founder and CEO, “We rallied our 70,000+ grassroots volunteers and 150 global enterprise teams to continue to provide vital menstrual kits and education, while simultaneously dealing with the immediate impact of the devastating health crisis.”
Since 2008, Days for Girls has produced and distributed washable, sustainable menstrual kits (DFG Kits), using a unique, hybrid model. Volunteers in 1,000 chapters and teams create DFG Kits for distribution to those most vulnerable, reaching over 1.7 million women and girls.
As well, in low and middle-income communities, the Days for Girls Social Enterprise Program trains local leaders to become entrepreneurs as they produce and sell the kits and provide women’s health education.
Because of this extensive, highly effective distribution network, Days for Girls was able to respond quickly, adding face masks to their production line-up under the Mask4Millions initiative and providing life-sustaining support. They began by enlisting local sewists to make masks for healthcare and frontline workers in the U.S. With the demand escalating, they expanded this initiative to reach out to their global network in Africa, Central America, and Asia.
Here are the stories of five women on the front lines:
Going House-to-House in Kenya
In Kenya, Days for Girls Enterprise Leader and youth activist Alice Wambui Mwangi oversees a 20-member team of 10 seamstresses and 10 trainers.
“When the government announced the lockdown on March 15, the news didn’t reach many of the small villages we serve because there are no TVs, radios, or smartphones,” she reports. “We had to go house to house, handing out masks we had made, while maintaining social distancing and explaining about COVID-19 and how dangerous it is. Some people thought that rural communities would be okay, that it was an urban problem.”
The task for Alice and her team was made even tougher due to cultural traditions that involve handshakes and much physical contact. Using posters provided on the Days for Girls website, Alice and her team provided training on how to effectively wash hands, and they even set up water buckets on fences, providing soap as well.
“The shift in direction actually provided new revenue opportunities and ways to expand our enterprise,” Alice said. “We have been able to ensure that our 20 workers continue to have work and are getting paid, and they are learning about how businesses have to be flexible. And of course, we are helping our communities make sense of the pandemic and guiding them through it through education.”
Seeing the Downside of Depending on Imports in Zimbabwe
Chipo Chikomo, Days for Girls Country Director in Zimbabwe, faced a challenging situation in a landlocked country that depends on imports, making it nearly impossible to get supplies to make menstrual kits. Airlines had been grounded, and trucking firms were charging exorbitant amounts per kilo to transport goods.
She especially worried about what would happen to women and girls during menstruation. “During the virus,” Chipo feels, “menstrual hygiene should be an essential service, but we’re not seeing the same urgency with menstrual products that we’re seeing with face masks.”
Girls are not comfortable telling their fathers they need supplies, and most are not connected to the Internet. Supermarkets don’t sell washable pads, and the expensive, imported disposable pads are beyond the means of most in a country already hit with low wages and 90 percent unemployment.
Thanks to Days for Girls, Chipo received relief funds to get fabric stuck in South Africa shipped to her. “Even before we applied, they offered these funds, which is truly forward thinking.”
She has been making washable masks based on patterns supplied by Days for Girls and selling them to organizations such as the UN and UNICEF. The government has mandated the wearing of masks while outside, a rule that is strictly enforced.
A global citizen determined to improve the situation in her country, Chipo studied in India and the U.S., where she met President Obama, and has even met the First Lady of Zimbabwe. She believes that you cannot wait for government bailouts; you must work with what you have, finding solutions to challenges.
“We have poverty,” she admits, “but what are we doing about it? We have arable land that we can do much with. We have to start with what we have, challenge the status quo, and not be so dependent on imports from other countries and handouts from NGOs.”
An example of this mindset is her approach to working with UNICEF, who donated sewing machines to Days for Girls. She believes that her team can do more than just take donations; they can become major suppliers of menstrual kits and masks to UNICEF, if they are given the proper guidance.
Turning a Difficult Situation Into an Opportunity in Guatemala
Days for Girls Guatemala Country Director Nilvia Gonzalez believes that even the most difficult situations can lead to opportunities.
Once the pandemic hit, she and her team assessed the supplies they had on hand to continue making menstrual kits, while adding face masks to the mix. It was important that her workers keep working since their wages go toward supporting their families. An American doctor who has long admired their work donated funds so Nilvia’s office could make masks and then sell them for one dollar apiece.
Community outreach has been key, especially in the indigenous, poverty-stricken areas of the country that the government cannot reach.
“Some are taking the virus seriously and following advice on how to manage the situation, while others are not,” Nilvia reports, “which is especially worrisome at a time when COVID-19 cases are rising.”
Working with the government, Nilvia got permission to visit rural areas, taking hand sanitizers, masks, and educational materials. At the same time, she is working to ensure that girls and women have menstrual kits.
On Menstrual Hygiene Day, May 28, 2020, she visited three communities and gave out 400 kits. “It is especially hard for girls menstruating during the pandemic,” she explains. “There are taboos based on machismo and discrimination against women, and they are afraid of expressing their needs. We are trying to get women to change how they view themselves.”
Helping Syrian Refugees in Lebanon in the Midst of COVID-19 and Economic Devastation
As Lebanon’s economic crisis has plunged whole segments of society, including the middle class, into poverty, Khayrieh Al Assaad is facing the dual challenge of continuing her work with Syrian women living in crowded refugee camps, while also stepping up to help Lebanese women facing dire needs.
Khayrieh, a civil engineer by training with her own small firm, has worked with Days for Girls since 2017. A committed and passionate woman who also coaches a woman’s basketball team started by the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon, she has traveled to the U.S. twice. The first time was with three of her basketball players, who were invited by the U.S. to train in Knoxville, Tennessee. The second time was in 2019 when she spent 10 days in Seattle training with Days for Girls. She has also taught Arabic in Turkey and is currently a youth advisor for the U.S. Embassy.
Explaining how many of the Syrian women in the Lebanese refugee camps have lost their husbands to the ongoing war in their own country and must support many children, she said, “Our first step is to help them earn money to buy food and rent places to live. Then we turn our attention to helping them stay safe during their periods.”
The Syrian refugee women have wrong information about periods and many societal rules imposed on them about what they can and cannot do during their periods. They are often married in their teens, and they do not go to doctors. Indeed, the topic of sexuality is so taboo that Khayrieh and her team must get permission from mothers first; some refuse.
Because she has run her own successful business, Khayrieh knew how to set up enterprises with 18 Syrian women. With sewing machines provided by Days for Girls, these women make both DFG kits and face masks. They have had an order for 500 kits from a Korean NGO, as well as orders from Concern Worldwide for both kits and masks. Kits are sold for $12, while masks get $1.
With the lockdown during COVID-19, the work is increasingly difficult. Camps don’t have masks, and it is impossible to go there. Working with local NGOs, Khayrieh has distributed brochures explaining how to stay safe. Another worry is that with so men out of work, Lebanese women face the threat of domestic violence.
Despite the situation in Lebanon, she still has big dreams. She plans to create her own NGO for orphan girls who are shunned in society. Adoption is illegal, leaving the girls with bleak futures. In her vision, the girls will live in their own village and attend a school she will create for them. There is every reason to believe that with her vision and determination, she will realize her dreams.
Using Social Media to Continue Vital Work in Nepal
Maya Khaitu, Days for Girls Country Director in Nepal, works in a diverse, challenging environment, where she sometimes enlists the support of the famed Sherpas to help her reach mountainous areas. She has traveled to places where buses and even jeeps cannot go, walking two days straight to get Days for Girls menstrual kits to girls.
But the payoff made the strenuous journeys worthwhile. She recounts how a grandmother shared stories of her youth, where girls with periods were not allowed to stay in their homes, forcing them to stay in open fields or caves during bad weather, at risk of attacks by wild animals, and worse, rape. While the situation today is better, more education is crucial, and this is Maya’s mission in life; she is clearly proud of her success.
She partners with municipalities in tapping into government funds, and so far, they have given out 80,000 Days for Girls kits.
When the government mandated a lockdown on March 21, 2020 due to COVID-19, no one thought it would last for long. No one was prepared.
"We have been allowed by the government to go out a few times, to distribute menstrual kits to disabled girls and women,” Maya explains. “But other than that, we have had to look for other ways to continue our work. We began making masks and distributed 250 to hospitals.”
But with stores closed, it has been hard to get materials. Police beat those on the streets, forcing Maya to take her work online, using Facebook and other social media to do training sessions on menstrual health and the pandemic. “We announce a date, and whoever wants to join can do so. Many organizations are doing this, and we are learning from each other as we go.”