This Harvard Teenager Is Leading the Menstrual Equality Movement
Not everyone gets to enjoy "shark week" once a year. Women have been getting visits from their periods for one week of every month since the beginning of time. Yet, despite their historical and natural presence and monthly demand for care, so many of us are afraid to talk about them.
Changing the conversation about periods is 18-year-old Harvard student, Nadya Okamoto. She's working to ensure that all women have access to the tampons, pads, menstrual cups and pain killers needed during this period of time. . "It really is part of my identity that I'm a period advocate," she says.
That's likely because the student founded and started her own non-profit, Camions of Care at the age of 16. The organization works to spread awareness, foster education, and aid homeless women in becoming healthier and more independent by providing them with access to feminine hygiene products. After all, being able to manage you period in a healthy and dignifying way can make all the worlds of a difference on how a woman sees herself-- it can be empowering.
Okamoto knows the journey to clasping onto self-care and self empowerment well and in way that stems from a total twist of fortune. At age nine, Okamoto's mother moved her and and her two younger sisters moved from their home in New York City to Portland, Oregon, after going through a divorce. Okamoto's mother, who had herself who attended Harvard at the age of 16, earned a law degree in corporate law, and made Okamoto's and her sisters' education a priority-- ensuring that her daughters each had access to the best schools .
But Okamoto's freshman year of high school saw a huge turn in her family's great opportunities. In the spring of 2013, her mother lost her job and the loss of the family's apartment soon followed. Legally homeless, Okamoto and her family couch surfed with friends, and Okamoto's commute to her exclusive private school changed from 12 minutes each way to a taxing two hours.
Okamoto's internal struggle over her family's situation became rooted in a "typical child of divorce feeling" she says, and Okamoto's thoughts shifted to darker areas of her ind. "I would fill myself with this negative narrative," she says, and eventually these thoughts ballooned into self harm. "The worst part is that it worked." Okamoto was a star student, but she still couldn't be happy with herself. "I had thrown myself into work because that was my refuge from my personal challenges, and it was a reaffirmation of my potential," she says.
During this time, Okamoto took a new bus route that set her on a stop that several homeless women shared. Okamoto inquisitive personality led to curiosity which led to questions. "What do you find most challenging about your living situation? Tell me about your childhood?" she would ask. Okatmoto quickly spotted the common denominator in all of the answers. Most if not all of the women had a complete lack ofFor these women, menstrual "health" and their periods became one of their greatest immediate struggles.
Okamoto's home life took a positive turn by her sophomore year of high school. Her family was back in their home and she was still excelling academically. But now the young teenager found herself in an unhealthy relationship. The physical abuse reached its pinnacle when Okamato was no longer able to warrant new stories of her bruises origins. To avoid a confrontation with her mother about the truth, Okamoto checked herself into a women's shelter one weekend. During the period she read the stories of homeless women she'd written down in her journal and began to develop new connections with women at the shelter.
The personal stories at this shelter mirrored those of the women at her former bus stop. "It really came down to a lack of development opportunities, educational opportunities, and familial support," Okamoto says. "There were all these women who didn't have that, and it could really change their life." The new awareness gave her the strength to end her abusive relationship.
"A lot of my motivation for wanting to give a voice to women and fight for women's rights comes from a place of understanding what it means to be silenced, or feel pushed down."
Okamoto's new understanding of the great opportunities she'd been granted launched her into a world of research, where she came to see a complete absence in organizations that made menstrual hygiene a priority. "[Organizations] didn't think women needed it, and that's because it's so stigmatized that women didn't speak up about it," Okamoto says.
"Because no one was doing anything, I didn't even think to ask anyone. I was like, ‘I'll just do it.'" She quickly filed for non-profit status for Camions of Care and enlisted the help of classmates.
In a week Okamoto and her classmates were distributing their first care packages to women out on the streets in Portland. It didn't take long for Okamoto to realize that she was working to solve only a small issue that was so much more beyond her little city. Eventually Camions of Care turned other non-profits who were already working to serve women across the world.
Camions of Care now makes and distributes 1,500 care packages a month (each of which provide a woman with nine tampons, four maxi pads, and five panty liners). They have a goal of providing 20 new women a week with access to feminine hygiene products. The non profit oversees 22,000 volunteers across the country and their care packages have touched 24 states, 10 countries, and has 36 nationwide chapters.
Now in her freshman at Harvard University, Okamoto is still driven to make an impact with Camions of Care. "I realized that if Camions of Care disappeared within a couple months, there would've been no impact," she says. "If we stopped distributing, it just stops; there's no systematic change." Busy at school, Okamoto is determined to continue distribution because the menstrual movement is more than just a period solution it's also about a social change. "We're changing the way people think about periods, and we want to change the way young people talk about it, because that's the future."