Pooja Muthuraj received the inaugural NHS Scholarship Pillar award.

I really wish this would end…

A string of mantras spilled from the priest’s mouth as I sat dejectedly in my pink half-saree, silently wishing myself anywhere but where I was—anywhere but my body.

It was my manjal neerattu vizhaa, the marker of my first menses and official coming-of-age in the Hindu tradition, and all the neighborhood aunties had gathered in my living room to rub sandalwood paste on my cheeks, sprinkle rice over my head, and congratulate me on the milestone.

In that moment, surrounded by so many well-wishers, I should have felt proud. Instead, I felt—more than anything—ashamed: of having a period, but mostly of the fact that I was now a woman. I was only 11 years old, but already I had learned to equate femininity with fragility, womanhood with weakness.

We all have pivotal moments in our lives, though, that change the way we see ourselves and the world around us—I’m sure you remember some of your own. For me, that moment of shame in my living room was eclipsed three years later by a brand-new feeling of empowerment at “She Rocks the Hill” 2019, an annual conference designed to inspire young women and acquaint them with the work of female activists around the world.

There, I met countless inspiring women who serve as role models for me to this day, but one stood out in particular: Nadya Okamoto, founder of PERIOD, an international nonprofit fighting something she called “period poverty.” Through one speech, Okamoto opened my eyes to how not all menstruators had dependable access to period products, how legislation permitted these products to be taxed as luxury items, and how the taboo surrounding discussing reproductive health issues ensured slow progress on this front.

While I clearly don’t have a problem talking about periods anymore, that moment, sitting in that auditorium, was revolutionary for me. That conference was the first time I’d heard anyone talk about periods in public—not to mention on stage in front of hundreds of people.

An idea started to gnaw at me: Maybe I could start the conversation that would serve as that revelatory moment for another girl or be a part of ensuring that the next generation getting their periods—my little sister’s generation—would grow up understanding that their womanhood was something to be proud of, not embarrassed by. That was enough convincing for me, and on the drive back home from the conference, I filled out the form to register a new PERIOD chapter. A few months later, PERIOD @ MLWGS (Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School) in Richmond, VA, was born.

Partnering With NHS

Despite initially having only 10 members in our first year, we were able to partner with a local organization called Sylvia’s Sisters to install period product dispensers in all of our school’s female/unisex restrooms, then use data we collected on these products’ usage to help support lobbying efforts for two statewide bills—HB 405 and SB 232—mandating public schools to provide free period products in their restrooms for women. Both bills passed in March 2020, and our group grew with the ensuing media coverage.

In the 11th grade, I joined my school’s National Honor Society (NHS) chapter, and PERIOD @ MLWGS started making even larger strides. Because school that year was conducted virtually, our NHS chapter struggled to find service opportunities to engage its members in a COVID-safe way—so PERIOD @ MLWGS stepped up to help. Alongside our school’s NHS chapter, PERIOD @ MLWGS managed to host multiple product/card drives and an international advocacy event called 28 Days of PERIOD. Thanks to NHS support, our club—yes, we became official!—grew significantly. And we have taken advantage of the possibilities generated by our NHS partnership to do even more since then, including hosting more drives and educational events.

Importantly, this entire journey has been guided and shaped by the four pillars of NHS. Service is probably the most evident, as the mission of PERIOD @ MLWGS has always been to ensure access to menstrual hygiene resources for those who need them, as well as to prevent girls from ever feeling ashamed of their periods or their femalehood.

Simultaneously, leading PERIOD @ MLWGS has taught me several valuable lessons about the pillar of leadership—for example, the necessity of networking and the importance of ensuring everyone within an organization feels heard and valued. We could not have accomplished half as much as we have without the support of our incredible partner organizations—Diversity Richmond, Latinos in Virginia Empowerment Center, and Kyempapu (Kirinda Youth Environmental Protection and Poverty Alleviation Program Uganda), to name a few—or the constant contributions of our members.

In striving to become a more effective leader for this organization, I have also sought to improve my own character—the third pillar—by working to increase my proactiveness, my listening skills, my efficiency, my confidence, and my decisiveness.

Focusing on Scholarship

On a more personal note, in the 10th grade, I developed a functional hypothalamic amenorrhea (HA) and lost my menstrual cycle for over a year. Throughout my recovery, I sought to increase my scholarship—the fourth and final pillar—in the field of menstrual health research by learning more about amenorrhea and its causes and treatments to treat my own condition.

Surprisingly, this turned out to be far more difficult than I anticipated. I’m a very research-driven person, so before I try anything, I scour the data on the subject. Unfortunately, there is still so little academic research on the best way to treat HA and other menstrual disorders that it felt almost like I’d been abandoned by the scientific community I placed so much faith in.

Since I lacked information and support during my recovery, I have tried my best to disseminate the knowledge I have accumulated about amenorrhea and other menstrual disorders, as well as period poverty and other period-related issues, to others in my community. I have done this mainly by attending and organizing workshops and via social media campaigns.

The more I started conversations about periods, the more I discerned that issues like HA were far more common than most people realize. Some studies estimate that up to 50% of women who regularly exercise may experience menstrual disturbances. Yet, until I developed the condition myself, I—like many menstruators—didn’t even know it was possible to “lose” one’s period before menopause. It’s just that there’s so much stigma around the topic that people still don’t feel comfortable talking about it openly—and that can be problematic  when it leads to a lack of research and awareness.

In college, I hope to conduct research of my own to investigate this issue further and explore treatment options, but for now, I’ll settle for spreading awareness as best I can.

Reflecting on the outcomes of this journey, I realize that my school and community have become far more welcoming of conversations surrounding menstruation and reproductive health. PERIOD @ MLWGS has helped ensure menstruators across Virginia have access to period products at school. Students at other high schools and colleges in our state have also started their own PERIOD chapters, and our network is ever-expanding.

Although I’ve now handed over the reins of PERIOD @ MLWGS to an incredible new leadership team that I know will take the chapter to new heights, I hope to continue embodying the values inherent in NHS’s four pillars in this next phase of my life. Winning the NHS scholarship and the inaugural award for the NHS Scholarship pillar made me feel like people truly believe in my mission and my ability to effectively represent these values. And I know I can’t possibly stop now.

Pooja Muthuraj is a freshman at the College of William & Mary. A graduate of Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in Richmond, VA, she is a youth outreach coordinator for Sylvia’s Sisters and a member of The Pad Project’s international advisory team. She is a 2022 NHS Scholarship winner and the recipient of the inaugural NHS Scholarship Pillar award.