Nadya Okamoto is part of Oxygen’s digital series In Progress 52. In 2016, Oxygen's Very Real digital hub is featuring 52 of these outstanding women: that's one woman a week, for 52 weeks. Check out the series here!
What were you doing when you were 18? If you were anything like me, you were enjoying your newfound ability to buy alcohol legally (I'm from Australia), and pondering existential questions like, “What am I going to be when I grow up?” I’m 31 now, and frankly, I’d like to be 18-year-old Nadya Okamoto when I grow up.
Nadya is the founder of Camions of Care, a not-for-profit organization that distributes packages of feminine hygiene products to homeless women. In an era when women’s reproductive rights are under serious attack, and potentially more so under the new Trump administration, and in a world where homeless might as well mean “invisible,” Nadya’s work is essential.
Nadya was recently named a Woman of Worth Honoree for L’Oreal Paris’ annual award for her selfless contributions to the community. L’Oreal also donated $10,000 to Camions of Care, a worthy cause for some of the most marginalized and forgotten people in modern society. I was lucky enough to speak to Nadya about the personal adversity that led her to start Camions of Care, the burden of reproductive and feminine hygiene costs on women and the broken-hearted tears of the women in need of something that seems so simple to many, like a tampon.
You're only 18--what, from your experience, led you to create Camions of Care?
In the spring of my freshman year of high school, my mother lost her job, and within weeks we could no longer afford our home. We had no choice but to move out and enter what I call our “time of transition,” couch-surfing with our closest friends who have since become family. During this time, my bus commute to school changed from twelve minutes to over two hours each way with two bus transfers. At this same time, I also found myself in an abusive relationship that landed me in a shelter for a weekend on my own. In having conversations with women who were in much worse living situations than I was both on my commutes to school and at the shelter, I had an awakening in acknowledging privilege as a spectrum, and found my purpose in trying to reconcile the ample educational opportunities and leadership potential to address a great need I discovered through those talks: menstrual hygiene.
I was further pushed to take action when I learned that periods are the number one reason why girls miss school in developing countries, and because I also learned that a girl’s first period (menarche), in signifying the official transition from girlhood into womanhood, was the single event that often led to a girl’s dropping out of school, getting married at a very young age, being socially isolated, or worse, undergoing female genital mutilation. I learned that in Kenya, girls miss an average of 4.9 days of school each month because of a lack of access to adequate menstrual hygiene. In rural Uganda, girls miss up to the 8 days of school each term. That is almost a full week of class. 25% of one’s school month. Think about that…because of periods, girls are missing almost a whole quarter of their classes. In India, 70% of reproductive diseases are caused by poor menstrual hygiene, and the effects can go so far as to affect maternal mortality.
Feminine hygiene is expensive and burdensome even for women of means--what specific challenges does this bring to the homeless community?
The individual stories that I heard...fostered my driving force to found Camions of Care. These stories were of women using toilet paper, any cloth they could find, and most commonly brown paper grocery bags found on the sidewalk, to absorb their menstrual blood. They often told me of how they were often not even sure if the services and shelters they visited had a supply of menstrual hygiene products, because they were afraid to ask because of the embarrassment that they felt in openly talking about their own periods.
"These stories were of women using toilet paper, any cloth they could find, and most commonly, brown paper grocery bags found on the sidewalk"
I talked to many nonprofits around Portland at this time, and found that none of them had a sustainable method of providing menstrual hygiene products, either due to a lack of funds or a lack of displayed need. Thus, there was this neverending cycle of women and girls not feeling confident enough to advocate for their natural needs and ask for the products, and organizations not knowing about it so they had no reason to really prioritize having menstrual hygiene products ready and available. Having poor menstrual hygiene, especially when there is minimal access to clean bathrooms and showers, is something that can negatively influence a woman’s self-confidence and feeling of hygiene, which diminishes their readiness and capability of discovering and reaching their full potential.
Are there any stories from your time working with homeless communities that changed your perception of womanhood, health, and our society generally?
There are many stories that have greatly influenced how I think of the importance of menstrual hygiene and our need to prioritize it as a right, not a privilege. Here are just two of them:
Less than a month ago, I heard and then shared a “period story” from a woman named Amy on our blog and on Huffington Post. Learning about the rise in advocacy initiatives surrounding menstrual hygiene advocacy, she was inspired to share her story of when she was 19 years old and struggling with homelessness herself. She recalls living in a shelter and making a wishlist for Christmas one winter. Feeling like she didn’t need much, she listed the one thing she had been wishing for for months: menstrual hygiene products...She recalls crying with “immense disappointment” when she opened her present on Christmas and found a “basket of razors and hair products.” Amy was directly affected by the lack of open conversation around menstrual hygiene to the point that she didn’t feel comfortable to ask for the products explicitly, and the services she was receiving at the time didn’t think of menstruation in the category of hygiene.
My most memorable moment in leading Camions of Care was on one of my first distribution trips visiting one of our partner shelters to hand out care packages of feminine hygiene products. When a woman asked what was in the brown paper package I was handing her, and I told her that it was full of tampons, pads, and pantiliners, she instantly began to cry. She told me she was shocked that someone was giving her these products — products that she had been so scared to ask for, but longed for in her many years of homelessness. It was that moment that pushed me to realize the potential Camions of Care had, which elevated my dedication to continuing to expand our services and outreach programs.
What are your long term goals for Camions of Care? Have you thought about how feminine hygiene might be an issue in, say for instance, the current refugee crisis?
I hope that in the long run, Camions of Care can begin to make more sustainable and systemic change around menstrual hygiene--and what better way to do this than to change the system itself? We hope, in the next few months, to start focusing on our policy program to engage young leaders and legislators in enacting change around ensuring menstrual equity and access, regardless of your background. Menstrual hygiene is something that should be prioritized by our global community, whether that be for women and girls here in the states, developing countries, or in a refugee camp. Especially in the refugee crisis, when women are leading families in a life-or-death matter, and are protecting their children and striving to lead them through a safe transition despite the danger and discrimination thrown at them, there should be no natural need standing in their way as an obstacle.
How do we make feminine hygiene a less taboo topic in our culture?
We can make menstrual hygiene a less taboo topic by simply talking about it more and discussing the taboo and how it negatively affects our global development. We can also begin taking tangible steps to addressing the need through services similar to that of Camions of Care. Camions of Care is now a youth-run global nonprofit that celebrates menstrual hygiene through advocacy, youth leadership, and service. We do this through two major programs at the moment: (1) the global distribution of menstrual hygiene products; and (2) the engagement of youth leadership through a nationwide network of campus chapters. Youth leadership is a component that is an integral part of identity. As an organization, we acknowledge the powerful potential held by youth as the leaders of our future. In the last two years we have addressed over 25,000 periods through over 40 nonprofit partners in 17 states and 9 countries. We continue to expand our chapter network from 34 established at universities and high schools around the United States.
What can we do right this instant to help make a difference?
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 feminine hygiene products more accessible! Collect items with a feminine hygiene 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. My business partner and one of my best friends, Vincent Forand, maximized the extensive impact or our organization so that for every dollar that is donated to our organization, we are able to provide another woman or girl in need with everything she needs for an entire menstrual cycle. Every contribution makes a significant difference and goes directly to serving women and girls in need. We are constantly hoping to grow our network of advocates for our menstrual movement, and always welcome helping hands, eager supporters, or inspired youth leaders wanting to take initiative with our cause themselves. We hope you join us in our fight to de-stigmatize menstrual hygiene and our journey to make menstrual hygiene more accessible for women and girls no matter their circumstances.