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For several months during her freshman and sophomore years of high school in Portland, Ore., Nadya Okamoto ’20 was legally homeless.
Yet, Okamoto still attended school, traveling four hours every day to pursue her education. During the course of her commutes, she developed friendships with other homeless women who lived in shelters along her route.
Through these relationships, Okamoto began to learn more about health issues facing homeless women. Handling menstruation, she soon found, is one of the foremost challenges.
“When I was 16, I was in a very abusive relationship. I hid it from my mom by going to a battered women’s shelter when I had bruises. So it was there that I really connected with more women and heard about how periods were one of the biggest challenges they faced,” Okamoto said.
“I collected stories in my journal,” she added. “They were using toilet paper and grocery bags and, most commonly, stolen pillowcases; anything they could find that could absorb menstrual blood.”
After she regained stable housing, Okamoto established Camions of Care, a nonprofit start-up that works with other organizations to distribute feminine hygiene products to homeless women around the world.
Since coming to Harvard, Okamato has continued to expand the organization. Her advocacy is part of a larger movement on campus and around the nation to address women’s health and hygiene issues.
Eudora L. Olsen ’17, who founded the Hygiene Campaign on campus in 2015, became passionate about women’s hygiene following her enrollment in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies sophomore tutorial.
A pre-med student concentrating in the comparative study of religion, Olsen began examining her feminist readings through a public health lens.
While the adversity facing homeless women regarding menstruation seemed obvious to her, Olsen soon realized the issue has been largely overlooked.
A discussion with her mother on how homeless women address hygiene and menstruation illuminated the issue further.
“I am very lucky to be raised by a very strong, feminist mother, and she was like, ‘In my 60 years, I have never even thought about that [issue],’” Olsen said. “If my own mother is not thinking about this, who else isn’t thinking about this?”
“It’s an uncomfortable issue and I think it’s hard to initiate conversations when there’s immediate discomfort,” Olsen added.
The Hygiene Campaign provides feminine hygiene products to homeless women and raises awareness for women’s public health across the University. Harvard officially recognized the organization this fall.
Before the Hygiene Campaign attained its official status, Olsen collected donations for and distributed tampons and pads to homeless women who did not otherwise have access to these products. She reached out to other schools in the Boston area, including MIT, Boston College, and Northeastern University, where she held weeklong donation events and helped them start their own Hygiene Campaign initiatives.
Since receiving official recognition, the campaign has launched a series of events to increase donations. The organization participated in this year’s [BLANK] Party, which it co-hosted with other women’s groups, and recently held FundRAGER, a party in which guests were asked to donate feminine hygiene products to gain admission. In the days leading up to FundRAGER, the campaign posted videos of members sharing “period confessions” to help destigmatize the subject, according to Emma Y. He ’19, a member of the Hygiene Campaign.
“Through the past two events, we’ve collected $270 in donations, and we just went to Costco and bought huge packs of tampons and pads and dropped them off at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter,” He said.
“It’s such a silenced issue and the women who suffer most from silenced issues are those who are most vulnerable in our society. That has everything to do with race, economic status, sexuality,” Olsen said.
From Donations to Legislation
Okamoto’s research on feminine hygiene revealed that menstruation poses a major obstacle to school attendance. In some societies where menstruation symbolizes the start of womanhood, girls are forced to drop out of school and marry early.
Okamoto works with Camions of Care co-founder and Operations Director Vincent J. Forand, a freshman at Cornell University, to organize and coordinate over 50 chapters around the world. The chapters are located on both high school and college campuses, and Harvard’s Hygiene Campaign started as a Camions of Care chapter. Four chapters are located overseas in Canada, Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, and Kenya.
Chapters run donation events and give the products they receive to Camions of Care, which redistributes the products to women in need around the world. According to Okamoto, the nonprofit has “addressed” over 48,000 periods in the past two years by working with 45 nonprofit partners in 23 states and 13 countries.
“It’s not actually too hard to keep in contact with Nadya and keep this going,” Forand said. “I believe that this is an issue that everyone is affected by and it’s something that we need to come together if we’re going to have any legislation pass or if we’re going to have any major changes... we need both women and men to feel the same way and be able to add to our cause.”
In addition to her work with Camions of Care, Okamoto is also fighting the stigma against menstruation at the city level in Cambridge with Olsen and the rest of the Hygiene Campaign.
Okamoto and Olsen have worked with Cambridge City Councilwoman Jan Devereux to push for making feminine hygiene products available at no cost in public restrooms throughout Cambridge. Their efforts have culminated in a citywide pilot program that will run on a trial basis until June 30, 2017.
“The Department of Public Works is installing dispensers that supply female hygiene products at bathrooms in each of the five youth centers, the Multi Service Center, and in the bathrooms at City Hall,” a Cambridge policy order dated November 7 and signed by then-Acting City Manager Lisa C. Peterson said.
According to Devereux, who had attended and been involved in Hygiene Campaign events in the past, she approached Peterson personally to push for the program.
“The purpose of the pilot is to be able to report back and say ‘Here are the ways we think we succeeded and here are the ways it didn’t go like we planned,’” Devereux said.
“Hopefully, the honor system will work and it won’t be exorbitant costs. People will express appreciation and it will continue. That’s my hope. We’ll have to see, though,” she added.
Hygiene Campaign members voiced support for the organization’s public initiatives.
“I think an upcoming aspect of the club is a legislative aspect for long-term goals, because ultimately collecting donations is not a sustainable support system for homeless women. In order to address the more systemic issue, you’d have to do that through legislation,” He said.
The Campaign, which has also been in contact with a member of the New York City Council according to He, hopes Cambridge will eventually follow New York City’s precedent. The city recently passed legislation that would provide free pads and tampons in all prisons, public schools, and homeless shelters, making it the first city in the United States to do so.
He described New York City’s measure as a “total game changer.”
“They have some initial statistics for how effective this is in schools—the attendance rate went up after these dispensers were put in place. I don’t think we realized how much of an influence this has on people’s lives,” He said.
Setting an Example for Harvard
Olsen hopes these initiatives and conversations will continue on campus.
“It’s not even about making it into a Harvard issue, but how to lift up the fact that the stigmatization of menstruation affects students here. We don’t have free tampons and pads in any of the College bathrooms and that’s something that really, really needs to change,” Olsen said.
Other college campuses across the United States have launched initiatives to provide free feminine hygiene products to students in restrooms.
Brown University’s Undergraduate Council of Students has recently received attention and praise for providing feminine hygiene products in some restrooms on campus.
According to a press release from UCS President Viet Nguyen,“[s]tarting September 7th, Brown’s Undergraduate Council of Students (UCS) will be providing tampons and sanitary napkins in non-residential women’s, men’s, and gender-inclusive bathrooms across campus. This initiative is a student-run effort.”
The Student Life Committee of Harvard’s Undergraduate Council has also been working on a pilot initiative that would that would provide free tampons in campus buildings. UC Crimson Yard representative Arnav Agrawal ’20 said he hoped increasing the number of feminine hygiene product dispensers around campus would reduce taboos surrounding the topic.
“When we have condom dispensers across campus, it fosters community conversation around safe sex, around consent, around sexually transmitted diseases, and so on and so forth,” Agrawal said. “I believe that by having these dispensers across campus, we can foster similar conversations around menstrual hygiene, around problems people face every day. I think it’ll foster the realization that not all people who identify as women menstruate.”
Olsen also said such stigma is important to combat.
“Even to this day, I think a major barrier even for myself that I’ve struggled with is to get over that very ingrained sense of embarrassment and stigma in my own self and I’m like constantly talking about periods. And I still get like a little bit red or like a little bit uncomfortable,” Olsen said.
“However, I love that discomfort because I think so much of that makes me want to keep talking about it. If I need to get over this, then the world needs to get over this.”
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