Natalia Vodianova on Destigmatizing Menstrual Health, Girls and Women’s Personal Care

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Natalia Vodianova is putting a spotlight on Menstrual Hygiene Day today, bringing awareness to the importance of menstrual education and access to personal care goods globally.

Earlier this year the Russian model was named Goodwill Ambassador at UNFPA, the United Nations agency that focuses on sexual and reproductive health.

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“I started my work as an activist in the field of period poverty and female health a little earlier, maybe a year before I met with UNFPA folks,” Vodianova said over Zoom from Paris, where she’s based with her five kids and husband Antoine Arnault.

The philanthropist, who’s been open about her humble beginnings, is known for her charity work with children, girls and women, particularly as founder of the Naked Heart Foundation. She’s also an investor, backing endeavors that directly impact her missions.

It was UNFPA that reached out to Vodianova, after seeing her 2018 “Let’s talk about it. Period.” campaign for the app Flo — where Vodianova held conversations with women like Emily Ratajkowski to discuss their personal journeys and intimate stories about their menstrual education and experiences. Vodianova is an early investor in Flo, which was founded in 2015 to help women around the world access knowledge and support for their well-being. Vodianova would go on to partner with the U.N. agency for “Let’s Talk!”, an event created by her charitable platform ELBI to unify leaders, activists and policymakers to discuss taboos surrounding women’s health.

For Vodianova, the goal through her work with UNFPA is to empower girls and women and fight the stigma that surrounds menstruation. It’s also been personal; she realized she had her own issues to confront.

“It was really just my Soviet background, the fact that I grew up without sexuality education, and then realizing that I have some stigmas relating to periods myself and kind of feeling a lack of education in certain areas of my life, female health,” she continued, explaining her initial interest in the issue.

“I realized that I was always hiding everything to do with my female identity, menstruating and, like, washing sheets and hiding the period products,” she went on. “And, you know, feeling awkward if someone had seen them.”

The lack of education and cultural taboos surrounding women’s health can lead to major issues for girls and women around the world, she explained.

“In India, up to 40 percent of girls will completely drop out of school by grade six,” said Vodianova. “Their life, their dreams, their opportunity, their potential will be completely shattered, simply because they have no ability to manage their period, or it’s because…they have to get married, or because the parents are afraid for their well-being. It’s connected to their female identity and to having [their] period.”

And these issues are closer to home than imagined, she added.

“We think that they are very far away from us, but in the U.K. alone one in five girls will be bullied because of menstruation, and two out of three girls will miss school, also connected to their menstrual cycle,” Vodianova said. “That’s in the U.K.”

To shed light on the topic, she’s unveiling a UNFPA kit on social media — a backpack filled with menstrual items like reusable pads and underwear, as well as other needs like soaps, toothpaste and batteryless flashlights (available at unfpa.org): “For $15, you can buy a dignity kit, and UNFPA will deliver it….They are real doers. They are on the field.”

The agency, which distributed 1.4 million kits across 58 countries last year, also works to assist those in humanitarian crises.

“For $15, women can at least live through an already very, very horrible situation or extreme poverty,” she added. “At least they can live these situations with dignity.”

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