I March Because Menstrual Hygiene Is A Right, Not A Privilege

Refinery29 is partnering with Girls Who Code for the #MarchForSisterhood on International Day of the Girl. This is the first-ever all-digital global march. Come back each day this week to learn about why different young women are participating, and join us as we #MarchForSisterhood on any of your social media channels this Friday, October 11, 2019.

I am passionate about menstruation. I know menstruation is not the most common thing to be passionate about, but my passion for periods comes from a very personal place. I founded PERIOD when I was 16-years-old, inspired by my family’s own experience with housing instability and hearing stories from homeless women who, in much worse living situations than I was in, were using trash to take care of their periods when they couldn’t afford tampons and pads. I am driven to fight for this Menstrual Movement because I want all girls and women to be able to discover and reach their full potential without being held back by a natural need. What could be more natural than menstruation? Simply put, menstrual hygiene is a right, not a privilege.

When my co-founder and I started working on PERIOD, our mission was to serve 20 homeless women a week in downtown Portland, Oregon. We would raise money, buy period products,  create period care packages, and distribute them to local shelters. Naturally, as Gen Z teenagers , we posted on social media to share what we were doing. Our goal was small at first — we wanted to  mobilize people in our own community to start talking about periods and potentially join our volunteering events. Within a few months, we had hundreds of messages from students and journalists around the country asking how they could get involved and bring our work to their city. Our most common message went something like, “We’ve never thought about periods before as a need, but now that we think about it, of course it is a need!”

That’s the beautiful thing about menstruation in the first place – it’s this great equalizer amongst all people. No matter who you are, where you’re from, or what your status is in this world – if you were assigned female at birth, you will most likely menstruate monthly for an average of forty years. And oh yeah, by the way, menstruation makes human life possible! Yet, because of the stigma around menstruation, periods have remained a taboo topic. We don’t talk about our own periods, let alone ask what it’s like for other people to get theirs. So, even though it is a basic human bodily function, menstrual hygiene gets overlooked every day, especially the needs of marginalized women experiencing poverty.

PERIOD exists to put a stop this stigma and end period poverty. We have made toolkits on what we did in Portland available, encouraging people in other states to join the movement. So far we have created over 500 chapters in all 50 states and 30 countries. And, I recently published my first book Period Power: a Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement, and took a leave of absence from Harvard to scale PERIOD. What started as the passion project of two 16-year-olds has grown into an army of “Period Warriors” fighting for menstrual equity. Five years ago, we were google searching answers to questions like “What is a nonprofit?” and embarking on a journey where we constantly felt like we had no idea what we were doing – now we’re the largest youth-run NGO in women’s health in the world.

I am proud of what we have built, and thankful for the opportunity. While I am driven, of course, by my passion for this issue – I am also driven because activism saved my life. When I was 16, I felt voiceless. After experiencing sexual assault and rape at a young age, I was confused about the source of my self-worth. Activism, and realizing that I could mobilize people around something I truly believed in, made me realize how much power and potential there was in my own voice. This work saved my life, and has allowed and pushed me to reclaim my body and my voice for myself and others.

I march for periods. I march for menstruators, including trans and nonbinary friends who may also experience menstruation. I march for sisterhood because our movement is stronger when we uplift each other. I march for sisterhood because we are better, more inclusive and empathetic leaders when we have sisters standing by our sides – keeping us grounded and reminding us why we do what we do. I march for sisterhood because when it comes to this fight for gender equality, we have so much more work to do, and we are stronger when we work together.

Nadya Okamoto is the founder of PERIOD, the largest and fastest growing youth-run NGO in women’s health in the US, and Chief Brand Officer of JUV Consulting. Her first book, Period Power: a Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement, came out in October 2018.

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