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Youth Activist Wants Everyone to Talk About This Woman’s Issue. Period.

by AMELIE ZILBER

According to Nadya Okamoto, 21, “period poverty” and the stigma surrounding a woman’s menstrual cycle is widespread, so she decided to do something about it. At the age of 16, she found PERIOD (​period.org)​, now the largest youth-run nonprofit in women’s health that seeks normalize menstruation. Since 2014 the organization has addressed over 700,000 periods and registered over 500 campus chapters in all 50 states and 30 other countries.

In 2017, Nadya ran for city council in Cambridge, MA. While she did not win, her campaign made historic waves in mobilizing young people on the ground and at polls. Nadya recently published her debut book,​ ​Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement​, with publisher Simon & Schuster, and was most recently named to InStyle Magazine’s “​The Badass 50:​ Meet the Women Who Are Changing the World” list.

1. I am so fascinated and impressed with your dedication and commitment to improving women’s health care rights. Was there any particular moment or event in your past that really jump-started your passion for, and desire to help women who lack basic access to healthcare products?

I founded PERIOD when I was 16-years-old as a junior in high school after my family experienced living without a home of our own for several months. During this time, on my commute to school on the public bus, I had many conversations with homeless women in much worse living situations than I was in. I was inspired to learn more about menstrual inequity and period poverty after collecting an anthology of stories about [these women] using toilet paper, socks, brown paper grocery bags, cardboard, and more to take care of something so natural. Via google searches, I learned about the barrier that menstruation has for girls in schools around the globe (they are the number one reason girls miss school in developing countries), about the effects for disadvantaged menstruators here in the U.S. and the systemic barriers to proper menstrual health management.

It’s 2019, and yet 35 U.S. states still have a sales tax on period products because they are considered luxury items (unlike Rogaine and Viagra). Period-related pain is a leading cause of absenteeism amongst girls in school, and periods are the number one reason why girls miss school in developing countries. Over half of our global population menstruates for an average of 40 years of their life on a monthly basis and has been doing so since the beginning of humankind. It’s about time we take action.

2. Would you categorize access to menstrual products as a social justice issue? If so, why?

Yes, absolutely. I don’t think our end goal is just about periods–it’s about gender equality. When we look at how gender equality is defined, its factors fall into these four buckets of education, health care, economic mobility, and representation in politics and decision making. A lack of access to period products, as well as the stigma and culture around menstruation is a significant barrier to success in all four of those buckets. This is why we created National Period Day, because we are still trying to get people to know that this is an issue.

3. As a college student at Harvard University and the founder of your own nonprofit, how do you balance work with passion? Do you consider your activism with PERIOD as a release from the stresses of demanding classwork, or as an added burden to your already heavy workload?

My work is my passion! Yes, I’m doing a full course load at Harvard, but school is not my priority. My work is my passion and what I prioritize, and I do school efficiently and effectively so that I can learn and figure out ways that I can take what I am learning in and apply it to my work. It’s all about balance. I have learned what I need and what kinds of self-care are important and effective for me in my life. You have to make sure you’re making time to give your body what it needs. This can be as simple as getting enough sleep and making sure you eat good food. For me, a big part of my self-care routine is working out. I feel better when I am making sure I find time to exercise on a regular basis.

4. Just last year you came out with a book, "Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement." Writing a book takes immense diligence and patience, not to mention the act itself is an extremely daunting undertaking. What prompted you to write your book, and why did you feel publishing it so early on, in what I can only imagine will be a long career in uplifting the rights of women, was important?

I wanted to write a book to show that this movement was REAL and has a larger vision for social and systemic change. We have an agenda and real information and thoughts behind why we’re doing this. I wrote the book in January 2018, and to be honest, while it was difficult, it also felt like a natural next step in my work to advance this movement.

5. So what’s next for Nadya Okamoto? Do you have any upcoming plans or projects in motion?

I’m not sure yet! As for PERIOD, we recently organized National Period Day (October 19th), mobilizing rallies in all 50 states and major cities. I’m also Chief Brand Officer at JUV Consulting and am hoping to work on my second book this year.

6. How can people get involved in your mission to break the taboo?

Talk about periods! Start a conversation! This is the best way to normalize menstruation- we have to be open and treat it like something natural because that’s exactly what it is! Visit period.org, start a chapter, donate!

7. If you had one last nugget of wisdom to share, what message would you pass on to young girls entering the world of menstruation?

Your period is a completely normal, natural, biological process. Do not let anybody make you feel uncomfortable or ashamed of your body because of your period, or anything else for that matter.

AMELIE ZILBER

SP contributor Amelie Zilbert, a bright and motivated high school student who is determined to show that young people her age are committed to creating change for a better future.

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