At the age of 19, Nadya Okamoto says she is not exactly sure of her plans for the future. But considering that she founded a menstrual rights charity at the age of 16, has tried and failed to run for public office, and is releasing a book in the autumn, she can be excused for wanting to rest on her laurels.
Okamoto, a second-year student at Harvard College, founded Period after her family became homeless while she was studying at an elite high school on a scholarship. She says this experience highlighted her privilege as someone with a support system and access to an education. It also brought home how periods are one of the biggest challenges faced by homeless women. Period delivers menstrual hygiene products, including sanitary towels and tampons as well as underwear and soap via over 100 registered chapters in 15 countries.
IBTimes UK spoke to Okamoto about her goals, why menstrual rights are worth fighting for, and what she learned from running for city council in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2017.
What are your three biggest goals for Period?
We define the movement as the fight to have equitable access to menstrual hygiene, breaking down the stigma around periods, and to push forward social change around periods.
That involves changing the conversation and the way people think and talk about periods; bringing period products to people who cannot otherwise afford them and pushing forward longer term systemic change around periods. That means starting to work in policy from the campus to the local to the federal level.
Do you think the time you spent without a home of your own gave you a different perspective on the world to other people?
My experience of my family living withoug a home of our own gave me the perspective and a way of teaching me privilege is on a spectrum. My family weren't doing so well as we were experiencing housing and financial instability. I felt that lack of privilege even more at school as I was at an exclusive school on scholarship with students who were very well-off.
At the same time, I was always on this spectrum because I was in contact with these homeless women who were in a much worse situation than I was. They were constantly giving me this wake-up call to how privilege I was to have education, family, and other opportunities. So that gave me perspective. The reason I am very passionate about activism is that public speaking and speaking out is my way of reconciling the privilege I do have.
Some people argue that fighting for menstrual equity is a waste of time or is not as worthy as other causes. What is your response to that view?
Periods are still the number one reason children in developing countries miss school. And cramps and dysmenorrhea are the leading causes of absenteeism in the US. At the same time, for so long they have been part of oppressive people who menstruate, marking it as a time when they should feel less confident, capable or clean, simply because they are menstruating.
When we talk about larger issues like education equity, the economic empowerment of women, breaking the cycle of poverty, delaying child marriage - periods symbolise this meaningful transition from girlhood into womanhood. And it becomes this transitional event that leads to child marriage, dropping out of school, going through female genital mutilation, or social isolation.
It goes even further if we talk about sustainability and the planet. Every tampon or pad takes five to eight centuries to decompose. It's a lot of waste that every menstruator uses almost 17,000 products in their lifetime.
Do you think that menstrual equity links with #MeToo?
The #MeToo movement is all about boldly coming out about our stories of experiences of sexual harassment and assault. It's something I felt really empowered by as a survivor of sexual assault and domestic violence and sex abuse as well.
They link because they are both about being bold, talking about stories and our experiences on things. Period shaming shouldn't exist and assault shouldn't exist. They're both very different realms but they both centre around women and reclaiming who we are, and our bodies and sexuality.
What did you learn from running for office?
Politics is much more personal than political. I was canvassing for six hours a day and knocked on almost 20,000 doors and was trying to hear stories about why people cared about policy. It was really meaningful for me to be able to hear about those experiences and much more exhausting and terrifying than I could have ever imagined, because of the amount of work we put into it. But also the amount of push-back.
But one of the things I learned was to be unapologetically myself. In those experiences people criticised who I was and how I carried myself, what I wore and loved to do and why I was running.
What is it like being a women's rights activist in the time of President Donald Trump?
Being a woman's rights activist in the time of Trump is very mobilising. It's saddening to read about but it's motivating as all hell. There's not a day that I don't have motivation. I never feel like I want to lie around all day.
You are so young! What is your advice for other people who are blown away by your achievements and also want to make a change in the world but don't know where to start?
My advice is to just go for it. I didn't know what I was doing and I still feel like I have no idea what the f**k I'm doing. But I'm not afraid to ask questions and work with people who complement my skills.