Q&A with Nadya Okamoto, 18-year-old CEO and menstrual activist

Camions of Care support menstrual hygiene management through the global distribution of menstrual hygiene product care packages to people in need.

We're naturally big supporters of their cause - helping people manage their health to live a better life - and were delighted to talk with Nadya Okamoto, their founder and CEO. Nadya was homeless her freshman year of high school, and seeing the struggles other homeless women face in regards to menstruation inspired her to take action.

At 18 years old, she's already given a TEDx Talk about the menstrual movement and founded this wonderful organization, so we can't wait to see what she does next. Nadya just graduated from high school in Portland, Oregon, and is on her way to Harvard University in the fall on a full-ride scholarship.

What kind of problems did you witness in regards to female health when you were homeless?

My family entered what I call our "time of transition," several months of legal homelessness, when I was a freshman in high school after my mom lost her job. My mindset became much more negative and pessimistic and I was constantly anxious about my family's living situation and financial capacity. I also felt an overwhelming sense of shame and guilt because I was too young to work, so I felt helpless since I had no way of supporting my family at a significant level. I was also tired—my bus commute turned from being about 12 minutes to over two hours long each way. I began to have conversations with homeless women that I met on my way to school, who sat at the bus stops where I changed buses, and I began to ask them what they found most challenging about their living situations. Their responses surprised me, I had never thought about the issue of menstrual hygiene. I began to collect stories for my journal of women using stolen pillowcases, toilet paper, and most commonly brown paper grocery bags to maintain menstrual hygiene—all strategies that caused skin infections and irritation, and the potential of developing toxic shock syndrome. In hearing of what they were dealing with, in acknowledging how blessed I was to be still receiving a high-quality education, and in having my mother watching over me and doing her best to support my sisters and I, I reached a new level of gratitude and became more optimistic.

Why do you think menstruation is such a taboo topic, even today?

I think that menstruation is a taboo topic because in our society, right now, periods spur gender inequality, and almost everyone plays a part in cultivating that—thus, no one wants to admit their discomfort with the topic, thus it becomes taboo. It is understandable that periods are not pleasant to talk about, after all, it is a women-specific need, and it is not a "clean" one at that. However, the fear of talking about it for this reason perpetuates this idea that periods are dirty, gross, and something for women to deal with on their own in private. On a global scale, periods seriously hinder the personal and professional development of girls. Periods are the number one reason why girls miss school in developing countries, and the single event that symbolizes the transition into womanhood, which can sometimes bring forth female genital mutilation, often dropping out of school, and child marriage. Because of how significantly women and girls are held back by the taboo around menstruation all over the world, we as a global community need to start talking about it and breaking down the stigma…and we need to start right now.

To how many countries have you sent menstrual products?

Nine countries!

Many people dislike the term "feminine hygiene" because it refers to menstruation as something "dirty" that needs to be cleaned. How do you feel about this terminology? And how can we expand not only our knowledge, but also our vocabulary, around the topic?

I don't think that feminine hygiene as a term is inaccurate—after all this is usually a women-specific need and having access to proper menstrual products is a right to stay clean and maintain your hygiene. However, I think that it is important that "feminine hygiene" is exclusive as a term, and ignores a population of transgender men who still experience menstruation. Thus, it is more inclusive to use the term "menstrual hygiene."

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment so far?

I would consider speaking at TEDxPortland my greatest accomplishment so far because it allowed me the opportunity to bring Camions of Care to a really big stage, and have a tangible video to share with the world to promote the menstrual movement.

It seems like your team is growing. What's next for Camions of Care?

We are working hard this summer on professional development, to make our team stronger and more sustainable, and focusing on expanding our nationwide network of active campus chapters.