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,” several months of legal homelessness and couch-surfing with friends. During this time, my bus commute to school went from twelve minutes to over two hours each way with two transfers. On my commutes and at the shelter, I began having conversations with women who were in much worse living situations than I was. Privilege is on a spectrum, I realized, and I could use my relative privilege and education to talk with them about a need they had that was going totally unanswered: menstrual hygiene.
I recall one conversation specifically, in the fall of my sophomore year of high school, when I was on my way home from mock trial practice. I approached my bus stop, where a friendly woman with whom I regularly visited was cozying up for the night. I had finally built up the courage to ask her about what she found most challenging. She told me periods “absolutely sucked” and made her feel “dirty” and “poor”. I responded by handing her an extra pad from my bag and she began to cry happy tears. She said she was so surprised that someone had felt comfortable enough to talk to her about periods, to listen to her needs and respond.
In March of my sophomore year, I found myself sitting on a couch at a battered women’s shelter in downtown Portland. My knees hugged tightly to my chest, my forehead throbbed, my lips felt chapped, and the left side of my face felt puffy and painful from where I had been hit. My heart was beating fast as fear coursed through my body. My family had just gotten our apartment back, but I was checking myself into a shelter because I wanted to hide the abusive relationship I was in from my single mother. I had witnessed my mother sacrificing so much and working so hard to bring our family out of legal homelessness and back into our apartment, and I couldn’t bear for her to see my bruises.
Over the weekend I spent at the battered women’s shelter, I recorded in my journal the stories of many of the homeless women I met there. For so many of them, menstrual hygiene was an issue. I collected an anthology of stories of women using toilet paper, stolen pillowcases, and most commonly brown paper grocery bags to deal with their periods. The women were embarrassed to ask for menstrual hygiene products, and how poor menstrual hygiene caused them so much discomfort.
I felt guilty realizing I’d never thought about the issue of menstrual hygiene, because it wasn’t a dire need for me. In seventh grade, (early in what I call my “menstrual career”), angry over the waste produced by pads and tampons, I’d switched to menstrual cups. Consequently, I hadn’t worried about replenishing menstrual hygiene products for years. In talking to these women, I realized that if I hadn’t had my cup, I’d have had a hard time paying for pads and tampons myself while my family struggled financially.
I realized how fortunate I was and I knew I had to do something. I talked to shelters and nonprofits and found that none provided menstrual hygiene products continuously, either due to a lack of resources or a lack of displayed need. Thus, there was this never-ending cycle of organizations not prioritizing menstrual hygiene and women in need being too afraid to advocate for it–leaving periods completely unaddressed.
I became obsessed and started doing as much research as possible on the problem. On a global level, I learned that periods are the number one reason why girls miss school in developing countries. I also learned that a girl’s first period signified the official transition from girlhood into womanhood in many cultures and was the single event that most 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 eight days of school each term. That is almost a full week of class. 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.
When it comes to global development, in working to advance families and break the cycle of poverty, women’s empowerment is the key—and the taboo surrounding menstruation is a major obstacle to that. I knew I had to do something to make menstrual hygiene more accessible for all women and girls, no matter their circumstances. After my family regained stability in the spring of my sophomore year of high school, I founded 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 of 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.
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 destigmatize menstrual hygiene and to make menstrual hygiene more accessible for women and girls, no matter their circumstances.
Running Camions of care has fueled the fire within me to enact systemic social change, especially around women’s health. This fall I’ll be starting my freshman year at Harvard, where I plan to study political science and public health. I will also be a Thinx Brand Ambassador on the Harvard campus. I am proud of the work we’ve been able to do, and excited to keep growing Camions of Care into a sustainable menstrual equity organization, and growing personally into an impactful women’s health advocate. 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.