story by Lu Lu
illustration by Vy Nguyen
For all of humankind history, women have been shamed and stigmatized for the natural bodily process of menstruation.
It's a problem that has plagued societies all over the world--girls were confined in separate rooms, shunned from society, and have even lost their lives because of the gross misconception of a normal human activity. While period stigma may seem like a thing of the past, it is undeniably real in the present day. Only one month ago, the world was outraged when a 14-year-old girl in India lost her life when she was forced to stay in a hut by herself when Cyclone Gaja hit. This tragic, preventable death is just one example of the social stigma girls still face today.
That's why Nadya Okamoto, a student at Harvard College, is aiming to combat menstrual inequality, which she views as a prominent symptom of a larger, more insidious trend: sexism, objectification, and degradation of women. She wants to start conversations about periods--in all caps--which is why she founded PERIOD: an organization aimed at combating menstruation stigma, gender inequality, and lack of menstrual hygiene.
PERIOD was launched when Nadya was 16 years old, and so far, she's focused on distributing critical menstrual hygiene products for those in need. She's also launched dedicated campaigns to recall the "tampon taxes" that many states have levied against critical hygiene products. More generally, she's dedicated to raising awareness of menstruation, combatting misinformation and stigmas. That's why, at just age 20, she has risen out of housing instability, started a movement, run for local office in Cambridge, and written and published her first book, Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement.
Since its inception, PERIOD boasts over 230 high school and college chapters. So far, PERIOD has donated more than 380,000 “period packs” to those who cannot afford products. Tampax, Kotex, DivaCup, and several other companies work with PERIOD to organize donations. To Nadya, this cause is personal. When she was in high school, her experience with housing instability made her realize the lack of accessible menstrual hygiene for homeless women, who resorted to toilet paper, socks, brown paper bags, and even cardboard.
This inspired her to take action to not only make menstrual hygiene available as a basic right but also for female empowerment in general. For Nadya, the movement is so much more than just periods. It’s about improvement of conditions for the poor, ending social stigma and discrimination towards girls, and embracing your womanhood. She tells young girls the importance knowing that they are not alone and to make their voices heard. That's why Nadya has immersed herself in civic engagement and politics.
In 2017, Nadya ran for Cambridge City Council, where she was the youngest candidate in the race. This didn't stop her from running on a progressive platform with a youth-led campaign team. Nadya's campaign energized voters with her passion towards improving affordable housing, climate change, civil liberties, and education. Although she eventually lost the race, Nadya's candidacy served as a powerful testament to the motivation, talents, and potential of youth.
With support served for 400,206 periods and counting, Nadya Okamoto is leading the change in the stigmatization of menstruation. Her movement has transformed conversations across the world, and she shows no sign of stopping.