Changing public dialogue on periods
Portland teenager creates organization that delivers care packages of menstrual hygiene materials to homeless shelters and directly to homeless people.
Almost half the world's 7 billion people are female, and at any given moment, millions are on their period.
Despite such massive numbers, and the fact that menstruation has occurred as long as women have existed on the planet, periods remain taboo in political and even social discourse.
But that's something one Portlander, Nadya Okamoto, 18, is fighting to change — and with an energy and passion that's hard to ignore. She believes menstrual hygiene is not a privilege or a luxury, but a right.
She wants to make sure that all women who menstruate, especially those without much money, have access to the products they need. She also wants to change public policies.
Okamoto has gone from legally homeless just a few years ago to running what's now a global nonprofit organization, while studying as a freshman at Harvard University.
She's been featured in the New York Times, NPR, BuzzFeed and elsewhere as her nonprofit — formerly Camions of Care but recently renamed Period., The Menstrual Movement — has dramatically grown.
The organization delivers care packages of menstrual hygiene materials to homeless shelters and directly to homeless people.
Okamoto says requests from shelters are coming faster than they're able to fulfill them.
"People have realized we have (the potential to) really address this problem and it's really just been trying to get enough funds to support that. Even now we have to turn down an organization ... because of the lack of funds we have to continue our growth," she says.
In the past two years, the nonprofit delivered care packages for more than 60,000 women's periods, via 44 nonprofit partners in 24 states and 14 countries. Sixty-one chapters have been established at high schools and universities in the United States and abroad.
Locally, Period. works with Street Roots, Transition Projects Inc., Central City Concern and Janus Youth Programs, while chapters exist at Portland State University, Lincoln, Grant and Cleveland high schools and elsewhere.
Okamoto says the name change from Camions of Care to Period. is about getting to the point. The official launch of the new name will come on International Women's Day, March 8.
When the new name was revealed at a Period Party gala held in Northwest Portland last week while she was home from college over the holidays, Okamoto admitted that too many people had no idea what "camions" meant.
"Camions is not a word, it's based off the word camión, which means truck or caravan in other languages, and I found it on thesaurus.com one day on a plane when I was determined to get started as fast as we could," she told the crowd, many of whom were sporting the color red for the night. She added that it represented a "truck we wanted to physically drive through the neighborhood and distribute the care packages" — something they still do anyway.
Each care package is filled with enough for one period: nine tampons, five pantiliners, four maxipads and an instruction kit. Okamoto says they're working to add underwear and baby wipes.
Hygiene suffers for homeless women
Rose Haven, a day center for homeless women and children at 627 N.W. 18th Ave., is one of Period.'s partners. The shelter gets a care package delivery each month.
Liz Starke, Rose Haven development associate, noted the struggle in getting such products before Period. came along.
"We would do our best to keep up with demand, but because of the housing crisis in Portland, it's been really hard to keep pace with the growth," Starke says. She says the center went from serving 749 women and children in 2009 to 3,200 in 2016.
Prior to Period.'s deliveries, they were depending on community donations and collecting the items through their own outreach.
"But there's so many things that we need to collect to care for a person that we would frequently run out," Starke says. Rose Haven has only a $500,000 budget, so purchasing items like tampons and pads was a big budget hit, she says.
Starke has heard a lot of stories from guests about ways they'd have to make do during their time of the month.
"Everything from that they had to shoplift their feminine hygiene products to stories of making their own pads out of socks, or, you know, washing themselves in public restrooms with like a cup they've gotten at the 7-Eleven or something, filling it with water," she says.
"We know that we're going to get this big box every month and it's a huge weight off."
Okamoto noted that homeless women also will use brown paper bags off the street. Poor menstrual hygiene poses a number of risks outside of general discomfort, such as urinary tract infections, and using a tampon too long can cause toxic shock syndrome. On a larger scale, persistent poor menstrual hygiene can cause school absenteeism for young girls — a problem in some developing countries such as rural Uganda, where girls miss an average of eight days of school each term, according to studies.
Changing government policies
By the end of 2017, Period. hopes to establish active distributing chapters in all 50 states — as well as launch a policy program. The program will consist of a comprehensive toolkit with communication materials and action steps to connect supporters to legislators.
Some youth activists who have become involved with Okamoto's nonprofit at separate chapters are already exploring change in their communities.
At the Harvard University chapter in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Hygiene Campaign lobbied to appeal the sales tax on menstrual hygiene products and make them more accessible.
Students worked with the Cambridge City Council to establish a policy to make menstrual hygiene products available in all public restrooms.
They're also tackling the "tampon tax" — a national movement to place tampons, sanitary napkins and other menstrual products in the category of necessities such as food and prescription medicines, which often are exempt from sales taxes.
Several states have made moves to remove sales taxes from feminine hygiene products, but the majority of states still impose it. Oregon and four other states don't have a general sales tax.
Okamoto says she'll visit Washington, D.C., the week of President Donald Trump's inauguration to meet with members of Congress on the subject. The group wants to see a menstrual product assistance program established within Medicaid and welfare programs, and supplied for free in public service buildings such as libraries and schools.
She says her grand ideas of incorporating period and feminine hygiene products in such programs aren't welcome everywhere.
"I've definitely had people who are angry at me. Especially after I did an NPR interview talking about how government assistance plans should cover it, I got a lot of mean comments from people ... we still have a lot of work to do," she says.
Her belief is that advocating for basic natural needs, such as menstrual hygiene, leads to global development by way of education and empowering women.
Her ultimate goal?
"I would say that every woman and girl or anyone who has a period isn't held back because of this natural need, and that it wasn't a socioeconomic burden for them to maintain menstrual hygiene," she says.