By Sam Manzella
When Nadya Okamoto launched PERIOD five years ago, she had no clue what she was doing. In all honesty, she wasn’t even entirely sure “what the fuck a nonprofit was,” she remembers now. She’d yet to add basic milestones like “work experience” or “graduating high school” to her resume. But Okamoto, then a 16-year-old high school junior in Portland, Oregon, did have one thing on her side: her passion for alleviating period poverty.
Period poverty is widespread, and taboos or misinformation about menstrual hygiene ostracize young people around the world, forcing them to miss school or work while they’re on their period. People living in poverty are often made to choose between skipping meals or buying menstrual products for themselves or family members — and those living in regions affected by conflict or natural disasters sometimes lack access to those products completely.
Western countries aren’t exempt, either. As recently as this March, researchers in the U.K. found that 10 percent of British women and girls aren’t able to afford period products. In the U.S., homeless or incarcerated Americans are often made to beg for menstrual products or scrounge around for makeshift options. In states or municipalities where basic menstrual hygiene products, like pads, menstrual cups, or tampons, are still taxed as non-essential wellness items in a phenomenon nicknamed “the tampon tax,” people living below the poverty line can’t use food stamps, Medicaid, or any other form of government assistance to procure the hygienic products they need. It’s a horror they often have to relive every month.
Okamoto first became aware of how access to period products was deeply entangled with systemic issues like homelessness, joblessness, and poverty when she and her family experienced houselessness firsthand. “It was one of the first issues that kept me up at night,” she tells MTV News of the discovery. “In all of my free time, I was exploring more — Googling, calling up other founders of organizations, just trying to learn more.”
Galvanized by her firsthand experiences and the knowledge she gleaned from her research, Okamoto teamed up her classmate Vincent Forand, a peer at her high school, to dig deeper into ways to remedy the issue. Their findings revealed a clear gap in the nonprofit world: Though international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like The Cup Effect were fighting to combat period poverty abroad, no comparable nonprofits existed in the U.S. on a national level.
“I think this cause became very personal,” Okamoto remembers. “It was the thing I could not stop thinking about. And that was all I needed to get this organization off the ground.”
Enter PERIOD. Launched by Okamoto and Forand in 2014, the Oregon-based nonprofit seeks to eliminate period poverty and diminish stigmas surrounding menstruation by providing free menstrual hygiene products to those in need. Since then, PERIOD has blossomed into a veritable movement. But those five years were filled with uphill battles, including getting other heavyweights in the menstrual conversation to take two teenagers seriously.
Now a 21-year-old Harvard student with a TED Talk and a book (2018’s Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement) under her belt, Okamoto is generally treated with respect from most corporate execs — but that was hard-won. “When I was 16 and a junior in high school, we had to work 10 times as hard to even get in the door and have these conversations,” she reflects. “Even when we get into those rooms, after begging for meetings for sometimes years, they’d giggle at us. Like, ‘Oh, it’s so wonderful that you and your peers are doing something, ha ha.’ Not in a, ‘We’re taking you seriously’ tone. … They thought it was cute that we wanted to take action.”
“Cute” is not a word that comes to mind when describing PERIOD, which in just five years has addressed 800,000 periods and registered 600 satellite chapters at colleges and universities nationwide. And while some period-poverty advocacy groups still use gendered language like “women’s health issues” or “feminine hygiene products” to explain their mission, Okamoto stresses that PERIOD resists using exclusionary language wherever possible. In fact, her book Period Power features a chapter about trans inclusion in period poverty discourse that she co-authored with Cass Bliss, a nonbinary activist known online as “the Period Prince.”
“We try to come at [periods] from a very gender-inclusive way, starting with our language,” Okamoto explains, “and we acknowledge that not all women menstruate, and that not all menstruators are women.” She adds that the concept of “feminine hygiene products” isn’t just exclusionary, but also inaccurate: “Femininity is about gender expression and has nothing to do with the biological process of menstruating. So we don’t say ‘feminine hygiene;’ we say ‘menstrual hygiene’ or ‘period products.’”
The nonprofit is also gearing up for its first National Period Day on October 19 — a nationwide series of rallies designed to raise awareness of period poverty and menstrual health issues in all 50 states. Though World Menstrual Hygiene Day has occurred annually on May 28 since 2014, Okamoto and her team specifically chose a date within the high school and collegiate school years in America to maximize youth participation.
The decision to spearhead a national campaign was also partially inspired by Okamoto’s 2017 run for Cambridge City Council in her Massachusetts college town. “I became really passionate about housing affordability, and the prospect of student involvement in advocacy in Cambridge specifically,” Okamoto says. She remembers being shocked that student involvement in citywide politics was “kind of non-existent,” and quickly deciding that a large part of her platform would involve electing young people into office in one of New England’s most well-known college towns. It’s a lesson Okamoto hopes to pass forward to other youth activists looking to get involved in local politics or try their hand at running for office.
Though her bid was unsuccessful, she came away with an important revelation about how shifts in cultural attitudes can lead to changes in public policy. Although progressive policy is “the end goal,” she stresses, destigmatizing taboos and encouraging dialogues around societal issues can lay the groundwork for a culture in which those policies can one day pass.
And for Okamoto, part of that dialogue includes talking about periods. After all, 35 states in America still have laws on the books that effectively tax menstrual products as luxury items for inexplicable reasons. Okamoto believes championing the issue in public spaces and educating people from all walks of life can go a long way toward PERIOD’s end goals of progressive policies.
“Before we can make political change,” she advises, “we have to run to change the culture.”