Over the past few years, countless people have told me how important it is to learn from and partner with those we hope to serve in order to serve them effectively. Celeste Mergens, founder of the nonprofit Days for Girls, is the best case study for proving that principle that I’ve encountered in years of reporting on social impact.
Days for Girls works to provide girls and young women with feminine hygiene products to enable them to attend school and work, giving them five more days per month in school or at work learning or being productive. Working in 101 countries, Celeste is truly is making a dent in the universe.
Over the past few weeks, Celeste–Washington State’s 2014 Mother of the Year–has been working on some lessons she could share with us about being more effective in our development efforts. She calls them her “5 Keys to Reversing Cycles of Poverty.”
1. Seek the Wisdom of those You Serve
When Days for Girls began, I had been actively seeking ways to reverse poverty, applying them in Kenya. From solar water pumps, to efficient rocket stoves, poultry ventures and tilapia fish ponds, I was looking for effective innovations; researching, applying and documenting solutions. You can imagine my surprise when it came to me to ask what the girls were doing for feminine hygiene and then learning that they had nothing, they would just sit in their room for days. How? By sitting on a piece of cardboard, missing school in isolated. My first idea? A typical western solution, disposable pads. However, I knew that even if I could consistently fundraise for hygiene supplies for 500 girls, if I sent money for hygiene and they needed food, they would use that funding for food, not pads. Any of us would. And that of course turns out to be true around the world. Anywhere that a family has to choose between food and hygiene. They will choose food. And that is true in the US as well. What do homeless women do? What does a vulnerable teen do? So we made our first washable pads and they were awful, and I can say that. I was the one that proposed it! They were white, because sanitary items are white. And they were shaped like pads, because they were pads. However, I soon learned that was not what worked best for the girls. Taboo and stigma made that design hard to care for properly. It wasn’t until we delivered the solution with education and a conversation about women’s health that the first girls explained that they were being exploited in exchange for a single disposable pad. That’s the moment that Days for Girls was born for me. They needed a solution that worked.
By asking for and responding to their feed back we were able to innovate a solution that washes with very little water and dries quickly, all without looking like a pad. All important attributes for those we serve. Days for Girls Kits are made of cloth and a waterproof material. They wash with less water and dry faster than other washable options. Each kit lasts 2-4 years. A design created by seeking the wisdom of those we serve. In fact, the design is nothing short of genius, but it is innovation inspired by the wisdom of those we serve. Their genius in action. What if we hadn’t listened?
Since 2008, Days for Girls has reached over 300,000 women and girls, earning back collectively 54 million days of education and opportunity that would otherwise be missed without hygiene solutions. And we have reached 101 nations. That’s how big the need is, and the need was not even recognizing in development until just a few years ago. A need that is keeping girls from school and women from work, creating isolation, indignity, exploitation and lost opportunity, not only for women and girls but for entire communities all over the world. Simple things matter.
2) Be Culturally, Physically and Environmentally Relevant
Some solutions sound great at home, but apply them in another part of the world without context of their circumstances, and suddenly the solution can be ineffective or even absurd.
With Days for Girls, the disposables we provided at that very first school seemed like a good stopgap solution for the girls, but what about the next month? And when we arrived 3 weeks later we saw that the “disposables” were piled against posts nearby and the pit latrines were stopped up with them. They littered every chink of the chain link fencing adjacent to the latrines. Some girls were even attempting to reuse those that had been left behind. There was no disposal service. They needed a solution that they could count on month after month, but not just any washable solution. They needed one that washed with very little water and dried quickly. It needed to come with education, that ensures proper care and usage was clear so the pads remain healthy.
Conversely, I was once at a development meeting with another nonprofit when an Executive Director proposed diverting funding for a composting toilet facility to instead build a 30 foot building for girls in the community school to shower…. in a drought stricken part of Kenya. It didn’t matter to her that they had so little water. It didn’t matter to her that the cost was greater than multiple classrooms. Nor that she was proposing importing one of the worst experiences of Junior High. To her it was a familiar solution from home that seemed like a good idea.
Development that ignore the realities of those served is not only ineffective but can be harmful.
A solution that was culturally, physically and environmentally relevant is a change maker.
3) Look closer
I had been visiting that first orphanage and school and bringing support every six months for almost 2 years trying to help kids stay in school. Food, exam fees, books and more. It never occurred to me that lack of hygiene resources could be a reason for girls to be missing school. To give you an idea of the global level of need, UNESCO estimates that in Kenya alone, 2.6 million school girls are going without access to pads.
If you had asked me 7 years ago if menstrual hygiene management was one of the keys to keeping girls in school, reversing cycles of poverty, violence in communities and introducing general health conversations, I don’t think I would have believed it. But it is. It was only hidden in stigma and shame, no one wanted to talk about it, let alone consider it. And it was only because we listened that we learned the many costs women and girls pay when they don’t have what they need for a basic biological function that half of the world’s population faces. Today more and more are talking about it. In fact, NPR named 2015 The Year of the Period. But until recently when people asked what was holding girls back, menstruation was the last thing anyone would name, yet girls miss
What other keys might we be missing? Looking a little deeper can mean catching vital successful actions.
4) Keep it simple, basic, direct and effective, over efficient.
One of my favorite books is the book Cradle to Cradle. It’s a book documenting the
unique approach to design and science, created by architect William McDonough and chemist Dr. Michael Braungart. In their then ground breaking book they explain that effective is better than efficient. In our industrialized solution-driven world we are always looking for faster, stronger brighter. They use the example of a cherry tree. By definition of industrial efficiency, there are excessive blossoms, too many limbs, there could be a few less leaves and it would still be a cherry tree. But when considering effectiveness, those limbs provide shelter for birds and those “extra” blossoms self-fertilize the tree. Efficiency is not the same as effectiveness. High cost and complication does not equate effectiveness. In fact, keeping things simple is often harder thing. Keeping things sustainable and community led, and simple… that’s genius. And that happens when you invite the wisdom of those you serve, stay tenaciously flexible to respond with sensitivity to their needs.
5) Community led development
Days for Girls gets Kits into the world through a unique hybrid approach. The first half is our volunteer model, made up of over 600 chapters and teams that make and distribute Kits for free. The other half is our social enterprise model, where Kits are made in the same area where they are also sold.
Not only is this community-driven model incredibly cost-effective, but it also enables DfG to gather data all over the world, both in terms of the current level of need, as well as the long-term impact of Days for Girls Kits. Since 2008, Days for Girls has reached over 300,000 women and girls, earning back collectively 54 million days of education and opportunity that would otherwise be missed without hygiene solutions.
DfG Kits have a tremendous social and economic impact, not only in terms of school days earned back, but also because of the conversations they start. the second arm of what we do is to teach local women to make their own Days for Girls Kits and to serve as Ambassadors of Women’s Health Education within their own communities. By having not only the knowledge but also the supply chain held locally as well as internationally, important social enterprise options then empower local women to lead the way in health while providing locally made Days for Girls Kits and distributions. It’s how we are reaching the last mile in our goal of reaching every girl. Everywhere. Period. It’s working.
On Thursday, June 30, 2016 at 2:00 Eastern, Celeste will join me here for a live interview about her five keys to reversing cycles of poverty. Tune in here then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe.
More about Days for Girls:
Days for Girls International empowers girls, women and communities in over 100 nations on 6 continents, helping reverse cycle of poverty and violence against women in a simple, direct, effective and perhaps a way that may be surprising to you: They help women have access to washable feminine hygiene that lasts 2 – 4 years. One of the major causes of disempowerment of girls in poverty is their monthly cycle. Many girls cannot afford feminine hygiene products and as a result cannot attend school. A girl absent from school due to menstruation for 4 days of every 28 day cycle loses 13 learning days, the equivalent of two weeks of learning every school term. Studies show that every year of schooling increasing a girl’s future earning power by 10 to 20 percent, allowing her to break the cycle of poverty. There are millions of girls and women worldwide who suffer days of isolation, infection, and exploitation due to this single issue– it will take all of us to reach all of them. With attention to collaboration, and responsiveness to local feedback Days for Girls tackles large systemic challenges with simple solutions that are turning out to be key to social changes.
Celeste is known for her always present smile as well as her ability to build teams and empower collaborations. Celeste founded Days for Girls during a trip to Kenya in 2008. With over 17 years experience in non-profit work, a reputation of building teams, and a strong personal interest in sustainable development and sewing and tailoring, Celeste put her creativity to use to find a solution… and then she listened to feedback of women around the globe that led to a uniquely appropriate design (28 versions later). Just seven years later, Days for Girls empowers women and girls in over 100 countries on six continents. Days for Girls has been featured in O Magazine, Forbes.com, Glamour, and in 2015 was named a Huffington Post ‘Next Ten’ organization positioned to change the world in the next decade. Days for Girls Uganda won the African SEED Award last September for Gender Equity and Entrepreneurship. Celeste’s passion for this issue is infectious and she has helped bring international attention to an issue that has long been neglected. All with the support of her beloved husband Don, and their 6 children and 13 grandchildren. Celeste is Washington State’s 2014 Mother of the Year and a recipient of the Soroptimist Ruby Award. She is continually grateful to be part of such a direct and effective key to empowering people and communities. See Celeste’s TEDx Bellingham speech here.
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Devin is a journalist, author and speaker who calls himself a champion of social good. With a goal to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems by 2045, he focuses on telling the stories of those who are leading the way! Learn more at DevinThorpe.com!