No woman should have to live without the feminine hygiene products they need. That was the simple thought behind the nonprofit Nadya Okamoto, a 21-year-old, started just three years ago.
Aptly named PERIOD, her organization — now the largest youth-run non-profit in women’s health — aims to end “period poverty” by providing access to necessary feminine hygiene products, such as sanitary pads or tampons.
A self-described “period warrior,” Okamoto is already changing the landscape of menstrual hygiene in America. But in her mind, the “bloody conversation” is just getting started.
A Passion for Periods
Okamoto says her "passion for periods” stems from her own experience with homelessness at 15. After her mother lost her job in social work, her family spent a period of time couch surfing and legally homeless. During this time, Okamoto began asking homeless women about the biggest challenge of their living situations. Their response surprised her: "The unaddressed needs of periods."
“I would regularly see these homeless women... and in talking to them I sort of found this weird fascination of mine of hearing stories of hardship,” Okamoto says in an exclusive interview with MAKERS. “I think I was trying to distract myself from what my family was going through — but also better understand it.”
After countless conversations with homeless women at local shelters, Okamoto discovered that they would resort to using anything from toilet paper, socks, brown paper bags, cardboard, cotton balls and more to take care of their menstrual cycle. She kept a journal and collected an anthology of stories about the lengths women would go to in order to deal with their monthly cycle.
“It was... a privilege check for me,” Okamoto tells MAKERS. “Even in this time when my family was legally homeless and trying to make ends meet I never had to use trash to take care of my periods.”
Inspired by this “wakeup call,” Okamoto began using the money she earned from babysitting and other odd jobs to distribute packs of feminine hygiene products to underprivileged and homeless women. “It was very emotional...when I would hand them a pad or tampon, you could see this weight lift off their shoulders,” Okamoto tells MAKERS. “Those are the moments that always stuck with me… this very emotional reaction of, ‘I've needed this for so long.’”
Starting the Menstrual Movement
As Okamoto began to research the issue online, she developed what she deems an “unhealthy obsession with period poverty.” But the issue is worth obsessing over.
In the U.S., one in five girls are absent from school because they can't afford feminine hygiene products, according to a survey by Always. And the problem isn’t just domestic. UNESCO estimates that one in ten girls in Sub-Saharan Africa miss school during their menstrual cycle.
Part of the high cost stems from the way menstrual products are sold. In 2014, 40 states in the U.S. had a sales tax on period products, considering them a “luxury” instead of “essential goods.” When Okamoto realized that tampons were considered a luxury, while things like Rogaine and Viagra were classified as essential goods, she was appalled.
"I would sit there and think to myself, 'Are you f***ing kidding me?'" she said at the 2019 MAKERS Conference. "It's saying that old man hair growth and erections are considered more of a necessity than over half of our population feeling clean, confident and capable 100 percent of the time, regardless of a natural need.”
So, Okamoto decided to turn her anger into action. In 2014, Okamoto and her friend Vincent Forand co-founded PERIOD, a program to educate, advocate and help break the stigma. What started as a small non-profit in their hometown has since turned into a movement. PERIOD is now the largest youth-run NGO in women's health in the world, with 260 chapters across the country that provide feminine hygiene products to their local high schools and college campuses.
Since its genesis, PERIOD has provided over 510,000 products to women in need.
“Periods shouldn't be a reason why girls, women, menstruators can't compete or participate in society or in opportunities at the same level,” Okamoto tells MAKERS. “[If] we provide ways to maintain menstrual hygiene regardless of socioeconomic status, I think we'll see a lot more...equal opportunity in general.”
Beyond providing women with necessary period products, PERIOD has been working to change legislation, in effort to achieve “menstrual equality.”
“We have 35 states more to go to repeal the tampon tax and we have one piece of legislation to get period products in all prisons,” says Okamoto, adding that food stamps don’t cover period products. In 2019, PERIOD.org took their fight to end period poverty to the federal level, by going to the Department of Education to make period products free for all in U.S. schools.
Keeping the Conversation Flowing
While Okamoto works to provide actual tampons and pads to women, she’s still committed to keeping the conversation flowing— with women and men.
“[Everyone has] a wife, a mother, a daughter, an aunt who have all experienced menstruation for probably the majority of their life on a monthly basis,” Okamoto tells MAKERS.”Menstruation makes human life possible. How are people having this much of a disgusted reaction?"
When Okamoto began her activism, she admits even she was afraid to talk about periods publicly. So she began practicing her period pitch on anyone who would listen, from auto mechanics at Jiffy Lube, to a group of corporate staffers at Infidelity Insurance.
“When I would say ‘periods’ really upfront, especially talking to the auto mechanic crowd, they would drop their sandwiches in disgust,” Okamoto recalls. “I could make them so uncomfortable by saying "menstruation," and then in five minutes convince them to care about periods.”
Instead of having “whispered” conversations about periods, Okamoto is now airing her menstrual movement loud and proud. The 20-year-old recently published a book called Period Power: A Manifesto for the Period Movement, and is taking a break from Harvard College to continue her work taking the taboo out of tampons.
“I think that the solution is rather simple. Just talk periods, right?” says Okamoto. “I think the only way we can achieve that is by changing culture. And that comes down to just telling the world that menstrual hygiene is not a luxury. It's a right.”
In honor of Menstrual Hygiene Day, join the fight to end period poverty by donating to PERIOD.org to help supply women with the period products they need. Text “GIVEPERIOD” to 44321. Let’s get this “bloody conversation” started.
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