Nadya Okamoto, the leader of a movement that aims to increase menstruation resources for women living in poverty, spoke about her organization’s work to promote menstrual hygiene at a talk on Monday evening in Willard Straight Hall.
Okamoto is a current Harvard sophomore and the national founder of PERIOD, a non-profit organization that she said “provides and celebrates menstrual hygiene through service, education and policy.” The Cornell chapter of PERIOD invited Okamoto to speak at the University.
In a passionate and vivid narrative, Okamoto recounted her experience of founding and leading this organization. She said her personal hardships, such as being legally homeless when her mother lost her job, influenced her to become involved in her local community.
At the age of 16, she said she developed “this sort of fascination with the intersection of being a woman and being in poverty” and reached out to underprivileged homeless women in shelters in her hometown of Portland, Oregon.
“Through these conversations with homeless women, I collected an anthology of stories of these women using toilet papers, socks, ground paper, grocery bags and cardboards and cotton-balls to absorb their menstrual blood,” Okamoto said.
As a result of this, she found out that it was very problematic how “periods are actually the number one reason why girls drop out of schools in developing nations” and that “[though a] period is completely natural, it’s still something that we inherently feel we have to hide it and feel ashamed about.”
At the same time that she was thinking about how to alleviate the issue of menstrual inequality, Okamoto also found herself “in a really abusive relationship where [she] was experiencing sexual assault and physical assault pretty regularly.”
This further inspired her to take action, and she said that devoting energy to helping underprivileged women allowed her to rediscover purpose and direction in life.
“I relate back to this mindset of, ‘Where does my self-worth come from, where does my voice come from, what’s the values of my voice and my potential?’” Okamoto said.
She collaborated with her then-high school classmate, Vincent Forand ’20, to turn the ideas into realities.
“These fundamental realizations … [of] both of us being carried by this passion for the issue, wanting to start something and feel the potential but also being fearless to ask questions, and reach[ing] out to adults in our life who may have the expertise … are what have carried us to here,” Okamoto said.
Capitalizing on the power of social media, the team connected with interested young people across the country. To increase momentum and accelerate the menstrual movement, the team created guides for starting new chapters that outlined steps people can take in their own local communities to make a difference.
“Since founding in December 2014 … we have registered almost 170 campus chapters at universities and high schools around the U.S. and abroad,” Okamoto said. “We are in 42 states and 15 countries, and we are now running an operation that consists of people who are working full time for us.”
While some chapters have already passed policies on campuses or in local municipalities, Okamoto hopes to “mobilize around state legislature, and [to] continue to appeal the sales taxes on tampons in states in which they currently exist.”
Okamoto said her organization is the biggest youth-run non-governmental organization globally and “the fastest growing one” in the country.
“This is why I do what I do … I identify the menstrual movement as a small step that hits a lot of intersections of different issues and the overall movement for gender equality … Whether it is breaking the cycle of poverty, acknowledging women as equal, or honoring bodily, biological and social phenomenon,” Okamoto said.
Jackie Dokko ’18 was particularly moved by Okamoto’s enthusiasm and sense of mission.
“I think it’s really incredible how someone can be so passionate about something that they can really mobilize on it and make such a big difference,” Dokko told The Sun.
Emily Wang ’20, the president of the Cornell chapter of PERIOD, hoped this event would inspire meaningful conversations and raise awareness about menstrual hygiene and inequality within the Cornell community.
“Menstrual inequality is an issue that affects at least half the Cornell population every day in some way but we don’t discuss it,” she told The Sun.
Wang also shared PERIOD at Cornell’s future plans and encouraged more people to contribute to the cause.
“We’re planning to start roundtable discussions on menstrual politics and policy as well as other topics in women’s health and feminism,” she said. “We also hope to reinstitute the presence of free tampons and pads in restrooms around Cornell.”