The ebb and flow of the oceanic tide. The waxing and waning of the moon. The shedding and regrowth of the uterine wall.
The Menstrual Cycle is as natural and powerful as anything revered in poetry or researched in science labs. Once a month about half of the global population will bleed; a blatant and powerful sign that our bodies are fertile and healthy. Yet on a global level, menstruation is made so taboo that is it quite common place for it to be an immense source of shame, or to pretend outright that it isn’t happening at all.
Menstrual Stigma has profound consequences on women and young bleeders across the globe. Shame from family members or communities prevent young girls and bleeders from attending school, talking about their experiences or seeking help at this sensitive time of the month. Quite often, young women, especially in developing countries, cannot afford or access efficient menstrual products. Schools may fail to provide sanitary and safe facilities for their students to manage their bleeding which forces billions of girls to stop attending school entirely, truncating their pursuit for higher education just as they’ve begun to hit puberty.
“Period Poverty”, as the epidemic has been coined, is far from being a problem in only developing nations. Even in America, Period Poverty affects 1 in 5 bleeders. This staggeringly high number of American menstruators cannot access or afford sanitary menstrual products. This problem is made no less oppressive by the “tampon tax”; an additional tax placed on menstrual products in 40 American states because they are deemed a “luxury item” and are not considered absolutely necessary. (Take note that male-centric products, such as Viagra and Rogaine are NOT taxed as luxury items.)
Furthermore, it is not legally mandatory for menstrual products to be provided in schools, homeless shelters or prisons. This lack of mandatory access in these institutions disproportionately affects low-income individuals, students and homeless menstruators.
This gender based discrimination has been totally normalized.
Meet Nadya Okamoto, co-founder of the non-profit PERIOD. and author of Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement. PERIOD. is a youth-led organization that has trail-blazed the way for the Menstrual Movement across America through service, education and policy. In 4 short years, PERIOD. has delivered menstrual products to service over 510,000 cycles.
FemmyCycle had the privilege of meeting Nadya and co-sponsoring PERIOD CON in New York City of January 2019. We sat down to learn more about Nadya’s journey and progress in ending period stigma on a national scale. Read all about it!
FEMMYCYCLE: How and when did you realize that periods were the focus of your work and activism?
NADYA: 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 of their using toilet paper, socks, brown paper grocery bags, cardboard, and more, to take care of something so natural. Hearing the stories of these women inspired me to learn more about period poverty and how it impacts menstruators both around the world and in the US. Learning about how 40 states had a sales tax on period products at the time, considering them a luxury, was the final push I needed to make me take action.
What obstacles did you come up against in YOURSELF that you overcame to get you where you are (and where your work is) today?
When we were just getting started Vince (PERIOD. co-founder) and I really had no idea what we were doing — so I think that the biggest challenge that we faced was trying to gain the confidence that we could tackle this issue, even without professional experience or many resources behind us. We were going to embrace the challenge of starting a nonprofit at 16, and use whatever networks and tools for support we had right in front of us.We started off just googling things like “what is a nonprofit?” and “what is the IRS?”. We had to learn as we grew, and embrace every opportunity to be humble and fearless about asking questions.
What obstacles did / do you come up against in the outside world that you have overcome?
Starting an organization focused on periods was definitely difficult. I was met with a lot of giggles and scepticism and I still am. This is why education and advocacy are so important in the menstrual movement. However, at the same time, that sort of pushback was motivating for me because it showed me that we still had so much work to do, and what I was doing with wanting to destigmatize periods was needed. We have to break the stigma and teach people about why menstrual equity is so important.
What would you tell others who were feeling tentative to investigate and invest more energy or research in the Menstrual Movement?
I would tell them about the scope of this issue. This is not just about making yourself and the people immediately around you more comfortable talking about periods. It is about breaking down this cultural stigma so that we, as a global society, can talk about solutions to issues of period poverty. It is absolutely necessary to address this in our overall fight towards gender equality.
When you imagine a future liberated from Period Poverty, what does it look like?
Accomplishing menstrual equity is a key step in achieving gender equality. In order for us to accomplish this, we need to make sure that menstruators have the resources they need to feel clean, confident, and capable one hundred percent of the time regardless of a natural need.
How do you think the world would benefit by switching to reusable menstrual products like the FemmyCycle menstrual cup?
I am a huge fan of menstrual cups because of how they get rid of the monthly cost to menstruators to worry about getting period products, but also because there is much less risk for TSS, if any. Menstrual cups are also great for the environment because they don’t contribute as much waste as disposable products
What’s in store for your organization this year? What can we expect from the Menstrual Movement in the next two years?
We’re gearing up for a national media campaign to end the cultural stigma around periods. So excited, stay tuned @periodmovement and @nadyaokamoto
Photos Courtesy of Heather Hazzan and Chloe Belangia