PERIOD talk with Nadya Okamoto

 Nadya Okamoto at her desk in PERIOD’s New York office. (Courtesy of McKinley Tretler / Malala Fund)

Nadya Okamoto at her desk in PERIOD’s New York office. (Courtesy of McKinley Tretler / Malala Fund)

20-year-old student Nadya Okamoto created the nonprofit PERIOD to help those in need access menstrual products — and the process helped Nadya rediscover herself.

“When we say period we don’t whisper it,” says 20-year-old Nadya Okamoto. She’s tired of people who are unwilling to talk openly about something as natural as menstruation: “we change the stigma by literally breaking the silence.”

Nadya is executive director of PERIOD, a nonprofit she founded at age 16 to shed the stigma surrounding periods though service, education and advocacy. She created the organisation to help those in need access menstrual products — and the process helped Nadya rediscover herself.

It all began in 2012 shortly after Nadya, her mother and two younger sisters moved from New York City to Portland, Oregon. It was their fresh start — an escape from years of domestic violence and sexual abuse at the hands of Nadya’s father.

But during the spring of Nadya’s freshman year of high school, her mom lost her job and their home.

Nadya’s commute to school went from 10 minutes to two hours. And on top of the pressures of homework, making friends and moving from couch to couch, she found herself in an abusive relationship. “I was sexually assaulted pretty regularly. It was something I accepted because it’s what I grew up with. I had this toxic mentality — I felt like my worth was my body,” Nadya shares.

 PERIOD interns Baljaa Borgil, Ting Ting Chen, Daisy Mia Kahn. (Courtesy of McKinley Tretler / Malala Fund)

PERIOD interns Baljaa Borgil, Ting Ting Chen, Daisy Mia Kahn. (Courtesy of McKinley Tretler / Malala Fund)

During this challenging time, Nadya befriended homeless women she met on her walk to school. Nadya discovered that they were often forced to use dirty socks or grocery bags from the street to absorb menstrual blood because there were no other options at their shelters. For the first time, Nadya understood that menstrual hygiene is a privilege.

A common mark of womanhood, menstruation forces girls in some countries out of school or into child marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM) or social isolation. For girls who remain in school, many miss class during their periods because they don’t have access to private restrooms or menstrual products.

In the U.S., an estimated one in five girls have either left school early or missed school entirely because they did not have access to period products. Nadya determined that the issue is cyclical: many institutions don’t see menstrual equity as a priority and women and girls felt too ashamed to demand change.

Obsessed with finding a way to help, Nadya organised a period product collection drive in her community to support their local homeless shelter. She posted about her efforts on social media and explained why more people shouldn’t be afraid to talk about periods. Soon students from other cities wanted to get involved. With that, PERIOD (originally called “Camions of Care”) was born.

“Menstruation and periods isn’t something that [should] hold anyone back from discovering and reaching their full potential,” says Nadya.

As one of her first actions as executive director, Nadya wrote a take action guide so other students could start affiliate chapters. When she received questions about products like menstrual cups (eco-friendly alternatives to tampons and pads), she created educational materials. When supporters needed help getting period products into public bathrooms, she started an advocacy campaign.

Menstruation and periods isn’t something that [should] hold anyone back from discovering and reaching their full potential
— Nadya Okamoto

As PERIOD grew stronger, so did Nadya. She got out of her abusive relationship and started therapy. Her daily dance or gym sessions are helping her redefine her relationship with her body and self-worth.

Nadya’s mom and sisters keep her grounded and remind her of the strength she had all along. “I always knew she would be the person who would stand in the way of anything that would try to take away our freedom or our voice,” Nadya says of her mom. Smiling proudly she added: “She built a new life and family for us out of literally nothing and with three girls. Seeing how resourceful she was, is super inspiring.”

That resourcefulness clearly runs in the family. In GenZ fashion, Nadya punched up her social feeds with period art and advocacy messages to amplify her organisation’s work. It led to her giving a TEDx talk, getting featured in Teen Vogue’s 2017 21 under 21 list and being profiled by outlets like BBC, MTV and Broadly.

Today PERIOD is a global youth-run nonprofit with more than 150 registered chapters across sixteen countries. Nadya focuses the organisation’s advocacy efforts in the U.S.

Thirty-six states in the U.S. tax period products as luxury goods. Nadya plans to work state by state to repeal the tax starting with California, which has the highest poverty rate in the country and earns $20 million a year off from menstruators.

 PERIOD chapter leader meeting (left to right) Nadya Okamoto, Jocelyn Cheng, Emily Wang, Laksmi Mahajan, Kianna Ackerman, Audrey Huang and Sadiqa Taaseen. (Courtesy of McKinley Tretler / Malala Fund)

PERIOD chapter leader meeting (left to right) Nadya Okamoto, Jocelyn Cheng, Emily Wang, Laksmi Mahajan, Kianna Ackerman, Audrey Huang and Sadiqa Taaseen. (Courtesy of McKinley Tretler / Malala Fund)

This September, Nadya also launched a national campaign with PERIOD to get free period products into schools across the U.S. Next up on Nadya’s advocacy agenda: working to get food stamp programmes to cover period products.

Around the U.S., PERIOD chapters support these advocacy efforts and host their own awareness events, fundraisers and “packing parties” where they collect and prepare pads, tampons and liners to deliver to shelters. For many chapter leaders, Nadya is a mentor and source of inspiration.

Kianna Ackerman, who runs a chapter in New Jersey, said working with PERIOD has helped her grow as a leader: “I’ve always struggled with projecting my voice and this has given me the confidence to take on more roles.”

Nadya loves her PERIOD community: “I’m inspired by every single person who comes into PERIOD. Every time I give a speech and girls tell me ‘I deal with the same thing’, or knowing PERIOD might provide a platform for other girls who are feeling the same way [I did], to get out of their things or feel less alone.”

But Nadya recognises there’s a lot of work ahead of them. That’s why she’s taking the year off from her studies at Harvard University to focus on PERIOD’s expansion and promote her new book “Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement,” which defines menstruation, discusses the taboos and how youth activism can help break them down.

Nadya believes PERIOD saved her life by giving her a greater purpose. “I don’t struggle with depression anymore. I wake up everyday excited about what I get to do.” She’s period proud now and is working for a day when all menstruators can be.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

McKinley Tretler is communications manager at Malala Fund. She’s on the hunt for the perfect Oreo milkshake and to befriend Mindy Kaling.