Getting our periods is uncomfortable enough, but for homeless women around the world who don't have easy access to menstrual products, that time of the month can be extremely distressing and embarrassing. Nadya Okamoto knew these struggles first hand when her family lost their home while she was in high school. She began talking to homeless women about an issue that is rarely discussed but dealt with every single month, and decided to do something about it.
Now an undergrad at Harvard University, Nadya founded Camions of Care, a nation wide non-profit working with college campuses to bring homeless women the menstrual products they need (including LENA Cups!). We talked with the 18-year-old activist who, with the help of LENA and a growing number of volunteers around the US, has started a conversation we all should have been having long ago.
Nadya and a Camions of Care volunteer distributing menstrual products, all photos courtesy of Camions of Care
Why did you start Camions of Care?
My passion came from my own personal experience. My freshman year of high school my mom lost her job and within a couple months we lost our home, so we entered a time of transition where I experienced not having a home of our own. During this time we were staying with our closest friends and it was really a mind opening experience for me. I immediately fell into that mindset of being really pessimistic and self deprecating. I was self harming and was really depressed. During that time my commute was 2 hours each way and the bus station was right in front of a homeless shelter.
I started to really connect with these homeless women and started realizing how privileged I was and how much I had to be grateful for. I found that homeless women were embarrassed to talk about their periods and the things they needed. I needed to put what I was learning to good use.
Why do you think that menstrual health is rarely talked about in regards to the homeless population?
I think most women have a hard time talking about it. They have a hard time talking about it to an authority and saying “I’m on my period and I need these products.” It’s fear. And we are trying to start a conversation. By talking to people about socio-economic background and menstrual health, it shows that this needs to be something we are all talking about.
How has the LENA Cup been received in this community?
The menstrual cups just last for so long. They elevate so much stress for a long time, and it really makes a difference. It’s beautiful to hear about these women’s experience and not having to worry about where they are going to get their next product.
I started using a menstrual cup when I was in 7th grade on my second period. I was terrified of Toxic Shock Syndrome, literally terrified, and I thought that if I left in a tampon in for even a few hours that I had TSS. But I was also just so angry about the amount of waste that was produced from the world using so many menstrual products. Trash cans fill up so fast with disposables - the packaging, everything - and it just really bothered me as a teenager from Portland, Oregon.
Do you feel that the stigma around periods has changed in recent years?
Absolutely. The fact that you see stories now about periods in the news is different. Our organization gets a lot of press and I think people are more willing to hear about periods. I don't think that would have happened a few years ago. But we still need to keep talking about it.
How do people get involved with COC?
We’ve started campus chapters around the US. It’s a way to replicate our program of distributing products but also a chance to do social media and advocacy campaigns. We are now launching a policy program with a toolkit that can be replicated at every campus chapter around the states and abroad, so you can be part of the menstrual movement at a higher level no matter where you are.
Do you have any tips of how to start this conversation?
Talk about it and tell your own story about why you're passionate about it. Personal stories about menstrual hygiene are so important but are pretty rare. It’s easier to talk about someone else's period than your own, but pushing yourself to share your story will help others find that freedom too.
Where do you hope COC will go in the next year?As of this year we have addressed over 50,000 periods. I’m hoping we can keep going with that and by the end of 2017 we will have actively distributing chapters in all 50 states. We are also launching a new name and brand! If you're in Portland on January 7th, 2017, come celebrate with us!