Women-led Nonprofits Bring Reproductive Health to All

Last month, Unicode approved more than 150 new emoji, giving representation to bald people, redheads, and badgers. Notably absent from the burgeoning emojicabulary is menstruation, that monthly medical occurrence impacting roughly half the world’s population. Sure, there are approximations—a red circle or heart, a few demonic red faces—but still no unequivocal symbol for menstruation or menstrual products.

The emoji shutout isn’t the only way periods remain taboo, despite the well-reported rise in recent years of companies operating in the period space, such as Thinx underwear and tampon brand Lola. Meet three organizations in the WeWork community operating on the front lines—lobbying to lawmakers on removing sales tax on pads and tampons; delivering reproductive education to Indian girls at risk of leaving school; and handing out menstrual products to homeless transgender men who get shut out of women’s centers. They’re not an emoji; they’re a movement.

The youth advocate

When Harvard College sophomore Nadya Okamoto isn’t in class, she can be found at WeWork Mass Avenue, leading a 150-chapter empire of period education and advocacy initiatives called Period, the Menstrual Movement. She founded the youth-focused organization with her friend Vincent Forand as a junior in high school. Period concentrates its efforts into three areas: providing menstrual products to homeless people, educating students on different menstrual products, and advocating at the local, state, and federal levels for increased access to menstrual products.

The straightforward name and red dot-themed branding all speak to a frankness Okamoto embraces.

“We very much acknowledge that we’re part of a larger movement,” she says. “That really came to light in 2015, the year NPR called the ‘year of the period.’ We grew fast because we started right around then.”

Period Con 2017 in New York City
At Period Con 2017, volunteers pack and distribute donations from Tampax, one of the event’s sponsors.

The idea to start the organization came from a personal struggle for Okamoto as a teen in Portland, Oregon.

“I started this when I experienced homelessness and had just come out of an abusive relationship,” she says. Seeing homeless women struggle to get the menstrual products they needed spurred her to action.

“Finding my voice in advocacy was very healing for me and is still very healing,” she says. “It helped me get out of that situation, to throw my voice and energy into something else. It’s so rewarding to help so many homeless women now.”

“Finding my voice in advocacy was very healing for me and is still very healing.”

Okamoto’s own journey from homeless to Harvard has given her a platform to inspire, and she’s making the most of it. Last November, Period hosted its inaugural Period Con in New York City, bringing together outspoken voices on periods and other women’s health issues, including US Congresswoman Grace Meng and YouTube star Ingrid Nilsen.

“We’re part of this global community,” she says. “More than half of the population menstruates more than 40 years of their lives. Periods aren’t an obstacle. This is about fundamental human rights.”

Period founder Nadya Okamoto, second from left, hosts Period Con with volunteers.

Period, the Menstrual Movement
Nadya Okamoto, founder and CEO
Established: 2014
Based in: WeWork Mass Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts
What they do: Provide menstrual products to homeless people; educate students about different menstrual products through 150 chapters on high school and college campuses; advocate at the local, state, and federal levels for increased access to menstrual products.

Teens step up to teach

For India’s 120 million girls, getting their period can mean the end of their education.

“So many girls stop going to school when they start menstruating,” says Ricky Sharma, co-founder with Priya Shankar of Girls Health Champions. “Almost half will become mothers in their teens.”

Sharma and Shankar saw the educational blind spot that happens in reproductive health for girls in India due to cultural taboos and sensitivity. They wanted to try out a new idea—peer to peer education—to counteract the lack of information, or even more commonly, misinformation that would spread.

Their program trains girls in 8th, 9th, and 10th grades to teach their peers about important health topics, including menstruation and reproductive health.

We’re equipping them with support and strategies so they can start navigating these challenges in their lives.

Both with family ties to India, Sharma and Shankar first met in college and are now based in Boston and the Bay Area, respectively, at different universities. Sharma pivoted away from a career in investment banking and is pursuing his masters in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Shakar is a physician doing a pediatric residency for underserved populations at the University of California, San Francisco. Both use their academic breaks to make trips to India, including in 2016 when they did their first pilot of the peer-to-peer model.

“We were so nervous,” Sharma says. “We needed the girls to buy in, to put their hands up and be willing [to lead the programs]. We thought, ‘Would this be too challenging?’”

They wound up getting a good response, but what happened next is what convinced Sharma that the model had potential.

“When we were assigning girls to the curriculum they would teach, we had two girls come up to us and say they wanted to take menstruation and pregnancy—the two hardest topics,” he says. “Seeing that bravery and fearlessness in our girls continues to inspire us.”

“Seeing that bravery and fearlessness in our girls continues to inspire us.”

Now in operation for two years, Girls Health Champions is in 10 schools with 330 trained peer educators. Their data suggests that each champion sparks two dozen conversations outside of school—with neighbors, siblings, girls out of school, parents—about difficult topics that could improve the health of the girls and the women they’ll become. But Sharma and Shankar haven’t forgotten about the boys, either.

“As we continue our work, educating girls is only half the equation,” he says. “There’s only so much you can do in a vacuum. We’re working toward developing a curriculum for the boys. Mid-2018 is the goal.”

New York City Creator Awards winner Girls Health Champions
Ricky Sharma and Priya Shankar, second and third from right, empower girls to be community health leaders.

Girls Health Champions
Ricky Sharma and Priya Shankar, co-founders
Established: 2016
Based in: Boston and the Bay Area
What they do: Train adolescent and teen girls in India to teach their peers about important health topics, including menstruation and reproductive health.

‘Hello, I’m menstruating’

On the streets of Los Angeles, #HappyPeriod founder Chelsea Vonchaz Warner also had a realization that she needed to look beyond women and girls as she distributes to homeless people the period products they need to live healthy lives.

“The whole narrative of being homeless is told like it’s one experience,” Warner says. “But that’s not the case.”

“The whole narrative of being homeless is told like it’s one experience. But that’s not the case.”

While giving out pads and tampons one day, Warner approached a homeless person, then apologized when she saw she was speaking to a man. But the person, a trans man who was still menstruating, corrected her, saying, “I’m a female, yeah, I’ll take some.” He hadn’t been welcomed in women’s centers because of how he presented himself. “They won’t give me what I need,” he told her. They instead told him to go to the LGBT center, “where they deal with folks like him.”

“That made me mad,” Warner says. “After that, I decided to be inclusive. I dropped the whole ‘women and girls’ thing and just made it about periods.”

In the last year, #HappyPeriod has started delivering menstrual products to disaster areas, starting with those affected by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas. Over two trips, she distributed 75,000 tampons donated by Cora to two high schools, a FEMA event, two organizations, and one church. While there, though, she had an eye-opening experience about how to better serve in moments of need. She had seen plenty of donations but not enough hands and bodies to connect the needy with the goods. “We would definitely do it again, but we’re about getting more people involved to execute on the distribution part,” she says.

HappyPeriod reaches out to homeless people in need of period products
#HappyPeriod volunteers reach out to homeless people on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.

Warner started #HappyPeriod in 2015, first with outreach events where most of the volunteers were her friends. Now, she has chapters in 30 other cities. From day one, she made #HappyPeriod her full-time job. “It’s my life—it’s my kid, boyfriend, and husband,” she says. Before starting the nonprofit, Warner worked in costuming, pulling wardrobe for TV shows and movies for seven years. Making the leap to her own operation, “I just applied all that I did for other people, making them look good, to myself.”

Warner still honors her fashion background, rocking her own “Hello, I’m Menstruating” T-shirts and selling them to support #HappyPeriod.

When thinking about the increasing number of organizations also working in the period space, Warner says she’s energized.

“There are so many startups and new companies that are part of the narrative,” she says. “I call us the period posse.”

Chelsea Vonchaz Warner
Chelsea Vonchaz Warner raises money for #HappyPeriod with T-shirts like this one.

#HappyPeriod
Chelsea Vonchaz Warner, founder and CEO
Established: 2015
Based in: Los Angeles
What they do: Organize outreach programs to ensure homeless people and disaster victims have the menstruation products they need.

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