How This College Student Is Fighting to End Period Poverty

Jennifer Mason
"Menstrual hygiene is not a privilege, it’s a right," says Period founder Nadya Okamoto.

Nadya Okamoto started a nonprofit, got into Harvard, ran for public office, and wrote a book — and she’s barely 21 years old. “I never feel like I am doing enough,” Okamoto tells InStyle. “Every night when I go to sleep, I always feel like I can be doing more to reconcile the privilege I have in this world and doing more to fight for equity.”

Yet, when Okamoto describes her teen years, the word “privilege” doesn’t spring to mind. In high school her family didn’t have a permanent home of their own, and it took Okamoto two hours to get to school. During her commute she had to change buses, and this is where she met women living in homeless shelters in the area. She started talking to some of them and discovered that in addition to the obvious — not being able to afford food, health care, or a place to live — they also couldn’t afford sanitary products for their periods. As a result they had to use toilet paper, cotton balls, socks, paper grocery bags, or even cardboard in lieu of pads and tampons. Resorting to these unsanitary methods carries all kinds of health risks, says Okamoto, “anything ranging from skin irritation to something more serious like toxic shock syndrome.”

At age 16, with the help of some grants and a lot of research, Okamoto founded the nonprofit Camions of Care to distribute sanitary products to homeless shelters. Later rebranded as Period, the youth-run organization, for which Okamoto now serves as executive director, is one of the fastest-growing of its kind in the United States, with over 300 chapters around the world. Not only has Period, in conjunction with corporate partners, donated hundreds of thousands of sanitary products to those in need, but it also aims to educate the public about menstruation, eliminate the stigma surrounding periods, and advocate for menstrual equity through legislation.

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Wake-Up Call In her teens Okamoto was in an abusive relationship, and as she told People, sexual assault was a common occurrence. “One of the ways I survived was by shutting off my emotions and sort of numbing myself to the pain I truly felt. When the abuse and adversity subsided, I felt empty — and confused about where my self-worth came from beyond my body,” she tells InStyle. Okamoto resorted to self-harm. “In middle and high school I struggled with cutting myself because I felt like I had a reason to punish myself, and I wanted to feel something.”

Hearing the experiences of the homeless women she met was a reality check for Okamoto. She realized that even though she and her family were going through difficult times, they were fortunate in many other ways. Okamoto resolved to get better and break her habit of self-harm. “I persevered by finding a cause to devote myself to. I could make a difference, but to maximize my potential and fight for the dignity of women around the world, I needed to set an example by taking care of myself and demanding more for myself in my relationships.”

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Legal Action One of Period’s objectives is to repeal the so-called “tampon tax.” Currently, 35 states add sales tax to menstrual-hygiene products because, unlike condoms, dandruff shampoo, and erectile-dysfunction drugs such as Viagra, they are not deemed medical items. Considering that a woman menstruates for an average of 2,535 days in her lifetime — that would be nearly seven years straight — the taxes add up, affecting primarily low-income women. Okamoto’s organization is also lobbying the U.S. Department of Education to provide free sanitary products in school bathrooms as well as offer all students comprehensive menstrual education before age 12.

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Game Plan Okamoto was accepted to Harvard but is taking a break from her studies to focus on running her nonprofit and writing a book,

, which was published last October by Simon & Schuster. She also ran for city council in Cambridge, Mass. (her platform focused on tackling rapid gentrification), and although she didn’t win the election, she succeeded in mobilizing the youth vote there.

Support System Okamoto admits she couldn’t have achieved all this on her own. Ascribing her success to strong family connections, she says, “I wouldn’t be where I am today without the sacrifice, fearlessness, and resilience of my mom. She helped guide me when I started Period and continues to act as a friend and life coach for me now. My two younger sisters are my best friends and remind me to stay grounded and rooted in my values.” Okamoto’s definition of a strong woman is “one who strives to empower other women,” and by that definition, she and her family are perfect examples.