In the US, the vast majority of states offer a “medically necessary” exemption to sales tax, which means that products like toilet paper, and even dandruff shampoo, can be purchased without the customer having to pay taxes on it. 

However, in 36 of the US’s 50 states, this exemption does not apply to period-related products which, instead, have been deemed “luxuries.” This means that, in addition to the existing price of things like pads and tampons and menstrual cups, most women in the US also have to pay 4 – 9% extra in taxes for these “luxury items.” Meanwhile, 1 in 5 girls in the US has had to leave school early or miss class altogether because they did not have access to menstrual products. 

If those facts and statistics make you angry, you’re not alone.  They made Nadya Okamoto so angry that they changed the course of her whole life.

Oftentimes, people will tell us it’s not a necessity, like this is something that shouldn’t be prioritized over other social issues like hunger. The biggest thing is us really needing to convince people that this is a necessity and not a luxury. I know it sounds simple to people who believe in gender equality, but it’s easier said than done.

Nadya grew up surrounded by domestic violence and sexual assault. Eventually, her mother left her father, and fled to Portland with Nadya and her two younger sisters in tow. Together, they began to build a new life, but they soon fell on hard times. Nadya’s mother lost her job and their house soon after. Finding themselves homeless, Nadya’s family was forced to rely on the kindness of others, moving from one friend’s couch to the next. Nadya’s commute to school went from ten minutes to two hours, and she began repeating the cycle of abuse in which she was raised, dating a boy who sexually assaulted her regularly.

The reason I became so passionate about periods so quickly is that I realized in my three years of menstruating, I had never thought about what it would be like to not [be able to] afford period products.

Given the heartbreaking circumstances she found herself in, it’s hard to imagine Nadya would ever look at her life and decide she was privileged, but that’s ultimately precisely what happened. 

Her two-hour commute to school created a series of opportunities to interact with homeless women, and during these interactions, she learned about the struggles they faced during their periods. Without ready access to menstrual products, they were forced to use everything from socks to paper bags to cardboard to handle the blood flow. In this moment, Nadya realised that, as bad as things had become for her and her family, the fact that she always had consistent access to menstrual products put her in a position of privilege, and she became obsessed with making sure that the world began treating ready access to period products as a human right.

As a 16-year-old, it was easy to fall into feeling really sorry for what we were going through. But I never had to use trash to take care of something like that.

To that end, at just 16 years old, Nadya founded PERIOD, a youth-run nonprofit that works to provide access to menstrual products to anyone who needs them. Since the organisation was founded in 2014, it has grown rapidly, ultimately becoming the largest youth-run women’s health NGO. PERIOD has more than 300 campus chapters and has helped women with more than half a million periods.

Menstruation isn’t something that [should] hold anyone back from discovering and reaching their full potential.

In addition to organizing drives that provide period-related products to women in homeless shelters, PERIOD also provides educational materials and action guides, and they are working to repeal the sales tax on menstrual products. They have also recently begun working to try and make it possible for women to purchase period-related products with food stamps.

I don’t struggle with depression anymore. I wake up everyday excited about what I get to do.

Nadya, meanwhile, went from homelessness to Harvard. 

Now 21, she has taken a leave of absence from school to focus on growing PERIOD.  She has also authored a book, Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement, and become a sought-after speaker. Her focus on youth-run activism continues to inspire young people across the world.

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Amber Karlins

Written by Amber Karlins

Amber works as a professor in Florida, teaching writing, literature, and theatre. Her first book, a work of creative non-fiction, was published in 2011. She also enjoys academic writing and has published papers in such places as the African American National Biography and the Journal for the Society of Armenian Studies.

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