Nadya Okamoto, executive director of the non-governmental organization PERIOD, was 16 years old when she noticed homeless women at the bus stop on her way home from school. After speaking to them, Okamoto found that many of these women had to use cardboard, toilet paper, and socks to take care of their periods. She began writing down their stories, forming an “accidental anthology” that marked the beginning of her activism in combating period poverty.
Okamoto spoke about her experience as a co-founder of PERIOD, a menstrual movement to end period poverty, this Wednesday, during All-School Meeting. She discussed the importance of one of PERIOD’s goals: ending the stigma around periods by using mainstream media to demystify menstruation.
“What we have done was try to figure out how we [can] get periods and this menstrual movement to be a more mainstream topic. So getting it into media, getting it on television, getting it into the big press. There is a spread I did with Oprah magazine, and we did this whole makeover piece. I just refused to take off my PERIOD shirt, because I knew that it would be one of the first times that menstruation would be really talked about in national headlines,” said Okamoto during her speech.
According to PERIOD’s website, the lack of accessibility to menstrual hygiene products acts as a barrier for women in education and the workforce, hindering menstruators’ ability to reach their full potential. Co-founded in 2014 by Okamoto and Vincent Forand during their high school years, PERIOD has become a youth-led organization that addresses the effects of period poverty. Today, PERIOD is a global initiative with over 300 chapters, uniting people in the shared belief that menstrual care is a basic right.
Okamoto said, “Hearing these stories of period poverty spurred a healthy obsession with periods. In my free time, I would sit by myself and go on Google. And I googled keywords about period poverty. I just wanted to know more about it… it was through just these Google searches that I learned that periods are the number one reason why girls miss school in developing countries. All over the world still today, a girls’ first period is when she is married off, drops out of school, undergoes female genital mutilation and social isolation.”
Karin Ulanovsky ’20, a member of YES+, Andover’s sex positivity club, introduced Okamoto at ASM and echoed her sentiments about the education gap.
“I have vivid memories of forcing myself to stay in math class even though I have the worst pain ever just because I’m so afraid of not being there. If [menstruation] was talked about more… I think a lot of girls that do experience periods, or nonbinary people, or menstruators in general that have to go through all of these experiences would feel a lot more comfortable. Not everyone has figured it out yet. Just because we are not in middle school anymore doesn’t mean we are done talking about periods,” said Ulanovsky.
Last summer, Ulanovsky and Emma Slibeck ’20, a member of the Brace Board and Co-President of Women’s Forum, saw Okamoto speak at the Independent School Gender Project (ISGP) conference at Hotchkiss School. After being “blown away” by her talk, according to Slibeck, they were set on inviting Okamoto to campus.
Slibeck said, “The topic was something that we all deeply felt was important…Talking about the menstrual movement, that is huge. I feel like that is going to become an even bigger thing. It needs to be, and it deserves to be. We were talking about ASM, and we were kind of joking about how much we would love to see everyone in ASM forced to talk about periods. But we weren’t joking, so [we talked] to [Flavia] Vidal [Director of the Brace Center for Gender Studies] and [LaShawn] Springer [Director of CAMD] help bring Nadya.”
Despite having the ASM, Slibeck feels like there is a lot more that Andover can do to create more conversations surrounding period poverty and to remove the stigmas surrounding menstruation.
“It doesn’t have to be going out and doing period packing parties every week or anything like that, but just making sure that tampons and pads dispensers are full. And making sure that the all gender bathroom, that all bathrooms and spaces on campus have a place where you can get tampons and pads,” said Slibeck.
Slibeck continued, “Understanding that menstruation, and getting your period, is important and is something that happens and something that we need to talk about. It’s not something we should be ashamed of and try to hide.”