Nadya Okamoto is a menstrual taboo debunker and founder of Camions of Care. She and her organization strive to foster social change through engagement with youth volunteer leaders and the global distribution of menstrual products. In the last two years, they have addressed over 49,000 periods through 43 nonprofit partners in 24 states and 13 countries, and have 60 campus chapter at universities and high schools around the United States.
We chatted with her about her organization, life and the issues around menstrual product accessibility. Here’s what she had to say!
What inspired you to start Camions of Care?
By the time I was 16, my family had just moved back into our apartment after experiencing legal homelessness, and I had suffered sexual assault. My sexual assault caused me to seek refuge one weekend at a battered women’s shelter in Portland, Oregon. On my final night in the shelter and after intense reflection on what I had experienced and learned that past year, I realized how privileged I was, the potential I held as a teen girl and also how often I heard stories of homeless people struggling with menstrual hygiene.
In my months speaking to others about their challenges, I had collected an anthology of stories of people using toilet paper, stolen pillowcases, and - most commonly - brown paper grocery bags found on the street, to absorb their menstrual blood. It especially angered me when I heard their stories of the infections that they got from the materials they used in efforts to maintain menstrual hygiene. It was at that one weekend in the shelter, that I knew I needed to take action, which catalyzed the beginning of Camions of Care.
In the coming months after my weekend at the shelter, I was obsessed with the unaddressed natural need of menstrual hygiene and stayed up late researching the issue. I learned that it was the number one reason why students miss school in developing countries, and the onset of a first period was the single event that led to a student dropping out of school, getting married, or undergoing genital (vulva) mutilation or social isolation. I was propelled by this anger and passion for the cause of menstrual hygiene.
Is there someone specific in your life who you get inspiration from?
Growing up, my biggest inspiration was my mother. I did not fully comprehend just how much she inspired my behavior, values and motivation until last month when I moved out of my house (and state) the day after graduation to take a job in Los Angeles for the summer.
My mom has always been a working parent (often with multiple jobs). Even with raising three children all on her own, she still made time for us—even if it meant dragging us to the dinner table almost every night or making us put away our devices to read together before bedtime when we were younger. My mother led by example: when I think of my most memorable childhood moments, they are ones where I felt completely embarrassed because my mother would very publicly (and often loudly) defend strangers she saw disrespected. My mother was highly educated, eventually leaving a career in corporate law to prioritize her health and her family, and devote her efforts to something she found more fulfilling: non-profit management and writing. My mother continues to work extremely hard and fight for our family, and she is brutally honest with me and reminds me to stay grounded. Thanks, Mom!
How does your work tie into fighting against menstrual taboos?
Advocacy is a core pillar of Camions of Care. We aim to start conversations not only about what menstrual health is, but why it should be prioritized in our global community. We push forward our belief that periods (with the taboo that they have) are currently a major obstacle for our global development in breaking the cycle of poverty and advancing families. Thus, we advocate, we talk, and we fight the stigma around the topic of periods.
Can you tell us what menstrual equality means to you?
To me, menstrual equality means that all people with periods, no matter their backgrounds have access to menstrual hygiene. Menstrual hygiene can be made more accessible either through making menstrual products more accessible or simply having access to clean and running water where students and others can cleanse themselves while experiencing their period.
Do you feel like you are tackling the idea that our biology shouldn’t be a financial burden? If so, how?
We are working to push forward the understanding that menstruation is very NATURAL and is a beautiful process that our bodies go through. Menstrual hygiene should not be a privilege; it is a right and should be made accessible for all menstruators--no exceptions! Every human being deserves to feel confident and dignified, ready to discover and reach their full potential, no matter their natural need. Natural needs should not have the ability to hold any individual back, so we are fighting to make periods empowering rather than challenging.
Why do you think there is a lack of access to menstrual products for homeless people?
In our world today, even here in the United States, menstrual hygiene is not considered a natural need, and the subject of periods is very stigmatized. Members of our society are taught that menstruation is something that is kept private, and only shared among women (if at all). Due to this lack of openness around menstruation, marginalized people with periods are uncomfortable advocating for their needs and the demand for such products isn’t made apparent very easily. Thus, poor menstrual hygiene (lack of access to menstrual products) continues holding these marginalized groups back.
Are reusable menstrual products a good choice for homeless people with periods? Why or why not? In what situations would they work/not work?
Reusable menstrual products are only a truly good choice for homeless menstruators that have access to bathrooms--this is especially important when it comes to menstrual cups. Of course, they are the more sustainable option for everyone to use, but they are only a sanitary and comfortable choice if you have access to a place where you can wash and clean the products. Especially when it comes to reusable pads, people who use them while homeless should have a place where they can wash and then dry their reusable pads, and access to this is usually hard to find when you do not have an easily accessible bathroom or private place.
What are the different ways someone could become involved in the work you are doing?
You can get involved with Camions of Care by starting a chapter with other youth from your area and start a menstruation station at your school to make menstrual hygiene products more accessible! Collect items with a menstrual product drive. Contribute to our cause. Spread word about our organization by sharing our videos. Every amount of support makes a difference and we hope you join our #menstrualmovement. Thank you to a large in-kind donation that we recently received from Maxim Hygiene, for every one dollar that is donated to Camions of Care, another person is provided with everything they need for an entire menstrual cycle.