While most college freshmen are tackling homesickness, making new friends, adjusting to their newfound independence, and getting used to dining hall food, 19-year-old Nadya Okamoto is busy running her nonprofit organization, Period; running for local office; and writing a book about her incredible journey. Last year, the Harvard undergrad was a 2016 Women of Worth honoree, a philanthropic project where each year L’Oréal Paris chooses 10 inspiring women to receive a grant of up to $35,000 to support their selfless efforts to improve the world and empower others. Through her Period (previously called Camions of Care), which provides feminine hygiene products to the homeless, Okamoto, who herself was once homeless, has been changing the dialogue around menstruation and has helped more than 78,000 people in need.
Keep scrolling to learn more about the incredible work Nadya Okamoto is doing to lead the menstrual movement.
I became fascinated by other people’s stories of resilience in the face of adversity.
BYRDIE: Could you please share how your personal journey inspired you to launch Period?
NADYA OKAMOTO: My passion for menstrual hygiene formed during my family’s experience with not living in a home of our own during my freshman to sophomore year of high school and through conversations with homeless women I met. In the spring of my freshman year of high school, my mom lost her job. Within weeks, we could no longer afford our home and had no choice but to move out and enter what I call our “time of transition”—several months of legal homelessness couch-surfing with friends. During this time, my commute to school changed from 12 minutes to two hours on multiple bus lines. I began to recognize familiar faces on my route, and befriended some fellow riders and individuals who camped out at the bus stops in downtown Portland. The majority of the women who I would chat with were also experiencing homelessness.
I had collected an anthology of stories of women using toilet paper, stolen pillowcases, and most commonly brown paper grocery bags, to maintain their periods.
I became fascinated by other people’s stories of resilience in the face of adversity. This was mostly because it helped to distract my mind from my own personal situation, reminded me of how fortunate I was and [to] keep working hard to pursue my education. This jump-started my motivation to devote my efforts to serving and empowering others. Throughout that point in my life, I was consistently keeping a journal. Almost every night before going to sleep, I would write in my journal about my day and record the stories of many of the homeless women I met. In the weekend I spent at the shelter myself, I realized in looking back at my journal, that I noted menstrual hygiene as a need shockingly often. I had collected an anthology of stories of women using toilet paper, stolen pillowcases, and most commonly brown paper grocery bags to maintain their periods. I wrote down quotes from the women of how scared they were to ask for menstrual hygiene products because they were embarrassed by their periods, but also how poor menstrual hygiene caused them so much discomfort. I noted how nervous they seemed to chat with me about their periods, as if it was a forbidden topic.
The more women I met, the more eager I became to figure out how to help. I started doing research on homelessness and menstruation and was baffled by what I found. I learned that most shelters and nonprofits serving impoverished or battered women do not consistently provide menstrual hygiene products—either due to a lack of resources or a lack of displayed need. This creates a vicious cycle in which shelters fail to prioritize menstrual hygiene products and women are too embarrassed to advocate for the products they need. I knew I had to do something to make adequate menstrual hygiene more accessible for all women and girls, no matter their circumstances.
Menstrual hygiene is not a privilege, it is a right.
My motivation to make this movement global was when I learned that periods are the number one reason why girls miss school in developing countries. In Kenya, girls miss an average of nearly five days of school each month because of a lack of access to adequate menstrual hygiene. In rural Uganda, girls miss up to the eight days of school each term. That is almost a full week of class—25% of one’s school month. Think about that: Because of periods, girls are missing almost a whole quarter of their classes.
In many countries, periods can be scary for what menstruation symbolizes—the transition from being a child to a woman, ready to be a wife and mother. In some other countries, as I have learned, getting your period can be the signifying event that prompts female genital mutilation, child marriage, and dropping out of school.
BYRDIE: In what ways is Period supporting the menstrual needs of at-risk and homeless women in the U.S.?
NO: Period is a global youth-run nonprofit that strives to provide and celebrate menstrual hygiene through advocacy, education, and service—through the global distribution of menstrual hygiene products and engagement of youth leadership through a nationwide network of campus chapters. In the last two years, we have addressed over 78,000 periods through 43 nonprofit partners in 27 states and 14 countries, and we have 65 campus chapter at universities and high schools around the United States.
Psychologically, having control over one’s own body is a step toward self-confidence and feeling in control of one’s life.
We are also preparing to launch our policy program in the next couple months, which will engage advocates and legislators to push systemic change around menstrual health equity. Right now, 37 states in the United States have a luxury tax on tampons. We hope to change that because menstrual hygiene is not a privilege, it is a right. We are also going to push for menstrual hygiene products to be funded for accessibility at public institutions (homeless shelters, correctional facilities, and public schools) like they are doing in New York. In the future, we also hope to ensure that government assistance programs (like food stamps) include menstrual hygiene products in the category of “hygiene materials” that are made available.
Period helps women and transgender men (who have periods) to feel dignified and clean during their periods by giving them menstrual hygiene products. We also strive to develop youth engagement through our campus chapters. The women who we serve are low income or homeless, and generally, would not spend the little money they have on menstrual hygiene. Our services thereby give these women the materials to take care of their natural needs which they otherwise would lack easy access to. Psychologically, having control over one’s own body is a step toward self-confidence and feeling in control of one’s life. This ability to take care of their natural needs is an early step in helping women get off of the street or bounce back from a difficult situation. Additionally, most reproductive diseases are caused by poor menstrual hygiene. By distributing menstrual hygiene products, we help women stay healthier. We are always striving to find sustainable solutions, trying to secure reusable products like menstrual cups and fabric pads.
BYRDIE: How is Period encouraging the dialogue around the issue of menstrual hygiene?
NO: A core part of our mission is working to make sure that people realize how natural menstruation is, and how it can be seen as really beautiful since it means that your body is both growing up and also working. These things should be celebrated and not pose any reason for a person with their period to feel ashamed. We are changing the narrative around periods and normalizing it as a topic as well—we do this even with the name and brand of our organization. Even by referring to us by name, you are helping to spark the conversation around periods. We are pushing forward the message that having your period is not a luxury, and menstrual hygiene is not a privilege, it is a right.
BYRDIE: Why is this often overlooked aspect of health so important to address and support?
NO: I believe that periods are often overlooked as an aspect of health simply because people do not talk about it since it is so stigmatized. Right now, menstrual hygiene is not an obvious need for people who face socio-economic challenges. When we think of what we should give to homeless people, obvious answers are clothes, shelter, and food. Hygiene materials may be thought of, but most likely not tampons, pads, and other period products. I think that this need is overlooked simply because people do not talk about periods, and for those who have not experienced what it is like to not have access to adequate menstrual hygiene while menstruating, there is a lack of understanding of how challenging, uncomfortable, and nerve-racking that experience can be.
BYRDIE: What would you say have been the biggest challenges you’ve tackled with your organization?
NO: The biggest challenge that we face as an organization is maintaining a flow of resources (specifically monetary donations) to meet the demand for our services. When we began, we were the only organization that we could find that was avidly working to provide period products to those in need and advocate on a global scale about celebrating and normalizing menstruation as a topic. When organizations that served homeless people with periods (or girls in developing countries) began reaching out, we realized how difficult it was to meet the demand with the limited resources we had (period products are really expensive to begin with). Especially when we were starting, at the age of 16, it was new to approach potential donors and convince them that I had what it took (as someone with a lack of experience in the field of nonprofit management) to launch what I now call “The Menstrual Movement.”
BYRDIE: How can we help to support Period and make a difference for at-risk and homeless women?
NO: Visit period.org to learn more, get involved (host a packing party or volunteer at one), or start a chapter. You can also easily make a contribution through our website. Each care package is worth under $2, so for every $2 that is donated, we are able to provide another woman with everything she needs for an entire menstrual cycle. For every $100, we are able to start a new operating chapter in a new area. To make an easy change to help support The Menstrual Movement, just start bringing it to people’s attention how much of an issue it is that we still have to be fighting for menstrual equity. Why are we so uncomfortable with talking about something so natural?
Now through May 8, Women of Worth is calling for nominations for 2017, so if you know someone who is making an incredible difference in the world, nominate her today to help support her cause.