Health

Nadya Okamoto Announces a Year-Long Campaign to Tackle Period Poverty

Nadya Okamoto founded the nonprofit PERIOD—a youth-led “menstrual movement” dedicated to improving access to period products—when she was still in high school. And, today, the 21-year-old is announcing a new year-long campaign to tackle the issue of period poverty.

To put it simply, period poverty refers to the fact that not everyone has the access they need to menstrual products due to a combination of cost and stigma. “Every month, women experiencing poverty or homelessness struggle to find menstrual products,” Okamoto writes in a memo outlining the project, “and the discriminatory taxation placed on these products only exacerbates the problem.”

The new campaign, which aims to build a nationwide coalition and promote policy change, starts today with the launch of the Menstrual Manifesto Petition and the announcement of the first batch of statewide rallies. From there, the campaign will really kick off with the first ever National Period Day on October 19, 2019, with rallies across the country. That will be followed by a nationwide donation drive for period supplies, meetings with legislators in January and February 2020, and activist training workshops in May.

This isn’t just talk—Okamoto made clear that National Period Day is about a large-scale movement and not just her organization. In fact, she hopes the campaign will help advance two clear policy demands that would vastly improve access to menstrual products in schools, shelters, and prisons as well as eliminate the tampon tax in the 34 states where it remains.

“Our end goal is making systemic change and changing policy,” Okamoto tells SELF.

“The immediate fix is the distribution of period products,” she says. “The bridge between service and systemic change, to me, is cultural change. Then we can create policy change.”

Okamoto, who founded PERIOD in 2014 on the basis that menstrual health is a human right and that period poverty is a national issue, has dedicated the past five years to menstrual advocacy. After running for Cambridge City Council at age 19 in 2017, Okamoto published her book, Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement, in the fall of 2018. Since its founding, PERIOD has built a nationwide network of over 400 chapters and addressed over 700,000 periods.

Running for City Council, she says, helped her see the bigger picture and, ultimately, pushed her to expand PERIOD’s role. “It taught me the power of policy—in comparison to the direct service work that nonprofits do,” she explains. Before that, PERIOD had been focused on distributing products.

Then she had a wake-up call: “If PERIOD disappeared, we [would have] made no long-term change beyond the young people we had inspired. The distribution would be a Band-Aid fix. The way we need to make long-term systemic change is to change the system itself.”

The first legislative push: free tampons in all public schools.

One goal of this year-long campaign is to increase legislation around free tampons in all public schools, something that PERIOD is already leading the charge on across the country. And the focus on schools makes sense, Okamoto explains, because “we have the perfect audience to do that—we’re all students.”

At the high school level, PERIOD advocates in Beaverton, OR started a petition to get menstrual hygiene products in their schools and spoke at the Board of Education in Greenwich, CT. PERIOD chapter members have pushed for period products at UC Davis, University of Washington, and UT Austin, to name a few. And Yale student Sophie Ascheim produced an Oscar-winning Netflix documentary called, “Period. End of Sentence.

And on January 28, 2019, during a DC Day of Action, many activists called for Betsy DeVos to take action on menstrual equality in schools. The letter, which was signed by both Okamoto and Maria Molland, CEO of THINX, states that Devos has a, “Profound responsibility to create ‘safe and trusted’ environments for students across the nation,” which includes access to period products.

When it comes to legislation already passed regarding access to tampons in schools, in California, some (but not all) schools serving grades 6-12 are required to provide free tampons in all gender neutral and girls’ bathrooms. And in Illinois, New York, and most recently in New Hampshire, all schools with grades 6-12 are required to do the same. Similarly, the city of Boston recently announced that they will be launching a pilot program with free menstrual products in their public schools this fall, Portland Public Schools will now grant $ 25,000 a year for menstrual products, and a number of other districts are in talks to implement similar policies.

The second legislative push: to eliminate the “tampon tax” nationwide.

The “tampon tax” refers to a state sales tax that would be waived if menstrual products were legally considered “medical necessities.” Although the exact rules may vary from state to state, non-prescription drug and medical products like dandruff shampoo, ibuprofen, and cough drops are generally considered medical necessities and therefore exempt from state sales tax. But in 34 states, tampons and pads are not.

PERIOD advocates have been spreading awareness about the “tampon tax” and advocating to eliminate it. At Ohio State University, students spoke out on the issue with lawmakers such as Ohio State Representative Brigid Kelly. These students also worked with state representatives to introduce a bill that focuses on eliminating period products from the sales tax in Ohio. The bill was passed in the Ohio House, but, according to Okamoto, was terminated in the senate. Okamoto says that advocates in Ohio are, “working to reintroduce it soon.”

While states such as Nevada, New York, Florida, Connecticut, Illinois, and Washington, D.C. have already eliminated their “tampon tax,” many states have not. Although legislators introduced bills to get rid of the tax in 22 other states, these efforts have yet to be successful. With that said, Rhode Island may be next on the list.

“We cannot end this tax yet because there is a lack of knowledge. The majority of legislators I talk to have not heard of the tampon tax. They will openly tell me that this is the first time they are hearing about it,” Okamoto says.

Here’s how to get involved in the campaign.

Following National Period Day, for which PERIOD has already posted 12 rally events in 11 different states on Facebook (with 10 other states confirmed for rallies), Okamoto has planned a whole schedule for action that you can get in on.

Beginning this fall, PERIOD will hold nationwide donation drives to collect menstrual products for people in need. Okamoto hopes that the winter will bring meetings with state legislators to share example bills, as well as lobby days on Capitol Hill. And in March, PERIOD will host its third PERIODCON conference, a summit that unites leaders and advocates across the menstrual movement for two days of programming and events.

“This is the first-ever nationally coordinated grassroots campaign about periods,” Okamoto says. “This isn’t just me and my co-founders standing up and doing this. We’re not just a few tokenized teenagers caring about this. This has grown into now almost 500 chapters actively doing this in all 50 states. I want to create platforms for local young leaders to get the credibility and recognition for the work they’re doing in this movement.”

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