Olie Body journeyed to India on a volunteer gap year placement with Lattitude in 2014. Placed in a remote village in the mountainous Kalimpong region, her placement revealed to her a new set of social challenges, and got her thinking about our own set of issues here in New Zealand.
Only four years and a Communications BA later, she is the founder of Wā Collective, a social enterprise focussed on normalising the discussion of menstruation and tackling “period poverty” in New Zealand.
What made you embark on a gap year in the first place?
I actually went straight into uni after high school. I went down to Otago after getting a scholarship, but quickly found out that I wasn’t quite ready for university. I was really needing a break from study life, I felt so burnt out from school, and needing a change. However, I was studying some really awesome courses, and one of them was a course in religious studies. That got me thinking a lot about Hinduism and Buddhism, and I really started to fall in love with the culture surrounding the practices.
I had decided I wanted to head to India, but as a white, young woman, it would have been a daft move to just go over by myself.I came across Lattitude, and thought Oh my gosh! Lattitude gave the idea some meaning and some purpose and drive, instead of just being a tourist. I loved the idea of being able to settle in a community, learn all about it, and hopefully help it as well. I also really liked the Lattitude programme because it wasn’t just two weeks here, two weeks there. I think that can do more harm than good. So I applied, and off I went!
How do you think your Lattitude gap year placement influenced the path you find yourself on now?
The seed of what I’m doing now was sewn at the Lattitude briefing day, during a talk from two women, Helen and Kate, from Days for Girls New Zealand. Day for Girls are a charity who produce and sew reusable cloth pad kits, that can be taken anywhere they are needed around the world. I heard them speak, and all of a sudden, the penny dropped, and I thought, “Gosh, what on earth do you do when you get your period and you don’t have access to supplies to deal with that?” Sadly, all too often the answer is, you skip school or worse, you drop out of school, possibly sitting on a piece of cardboard for days on end. And then there are all the cultural taboos and considerations layered on top of this, depending on where you happen to live in the world; Chhaupadi huts for instance in Nepal, or the belief that you are ‘dirty’ or ‘untouchable’ during your period, or conversely, in some cultures, revered.
I didn’t know any of this at that point, I just heard this little bit of info, and I thought, right, that’s something I can really bring with me on my Lattitude placement to really help this community.
So within my placement, I was helping deliver classes in a village school, and I found that I really had a passion for teaching and education. And of course, I had taken these menstrual kits over from Days for Girls and was able to educate my whole community as well. Gifting these kits to these women and girls and seeing tears in their eyes as they accepted them, realising what this would mean to them and their futures, was powerful.
Being in the community that Lattitude placed me into, the experiences and serendipity around that, really catalysed the work that I’m doing now. Over and above this, it gave me an appreciation that there isn’t necessarily a right and a wrong when it comes to different perceptions on how we do “life”, there are just different ways. It gave me the most incredible appreciation that just because another culture does something differently, it doesnt mean its wrong. It’s about opening the conversation and working alongside and with these people so that they can make the decisions for themselves, and that’s a big thing the Lattiude placement was able to teach me.
How do you think your Lattitude experience helped you and your personal development?
It gave me SO much more confidence, and that I could pick a path and apply myself, put myself out there. It gave me the most incredible sense of gratitude for my own upbringing and where I came from. And also gratitude that I can pass on my own skills, even at the tender age of 18-19, to allow other people to enhance their lives as well. In summary, a massive confidence boost, and an eye-opening to the world.
Tell us more about Wā Collective.
After my placement, I decided to move to Wellington. My trip with Lattitude was always in the back of my mind – its become part of my identity, as with any new, formational experience. So, one day, I was staring at a bowl of free condoms at my university, as you do, and this thought popped into my head: “Why is there not a bowl of menstrual products beside those condoms, because sex is a choice, and menstruation isn’t.”
If it wasn’t for this whole continuum of experience, I would have never of thought that. So I thought, “Right, let’s do something about this.” I started phoning tampon and pad companies, and the more I did that, the more I began to realise that that was perhaps just a quick fix, because every single disposable tampon costs money to produce, costs the user, lasts 4-8 hours, and ends up in our landfills. I then came across menstrual cups, and long story short, set up our social enterprise called Wā Collective. A Wā Cup is going to help your body, the land and your wallet, and that is a given.
On top of that, we are a social enterprise, so buying a Wā Cup is going to help someone else as well. But we wanted to do it properly – there was no use us getting in cheap ripoff cups from somewhere shoddy and selling that cheaply to be able to afford our mission. For that reason, our cups are gold standard, meaning they are ethically produced, zero waste in production, with complete material traceability right back to the quartz silica they come from, and there is no other company that is vouching for that.
Across the world, we are afraid of talking about periods; it’s still a taboo. We have found that the best way to combat that is simply to talk about periods and menstruation openly, and frankly, and with a flow of humour. If you put a bit of a pun in here and there, no strings attached, it keeps the conversation going.
Menstruation itself is not an issue, it’s a natural healthy bodily function, but the way society deals with it has resulted in issues such as period poverty and the waste associated with it as well. These are issues that don’t just affect women, but affect entire communities. So from a linguistic and marketing approach, we have made all our language completely open, we don’t use gendered terms, making the conversation accessible to everyone. And it gives us a point of difference in the market too.
Tell us about some of the accolades you have received to date?
The first award we received was the Wellington Gold Awards for excellence in business. This was when we’d only been operating with our full impact model for three months, so that was incredible to be part of, and within this category, we were up against our own university, Wellington Airport, and all these other really substantial organisations, and then there is little old Wā Collective social enterprise talking about periods, so yeah, being a finalist in the Wellington Gold Awards was certainly one of our first huge highlights.
Each time something happens like that, it’s amazing because we are smashing down that taboo, and it means the whole conversation can get more accessible, because all of a sudden, all the people involved in the awards are having to talk about periods!
Recently, we have been nominated as a finalist in the Miss FQ Influencer Awards for Social Change, which is again fantastic to be a part of. I was shocked! And we just got nominated as finalists in two categories in the Sustainable Business Network awards, which is a real biggie! It’s amazing that in such a short time we have been able to have such large impact. To date, we have been able to prevent 530,000 menstrual products from going to landfills, and in the process save people $180,000. So to have that impact, for people to be able to talk about it, and then to be recognised for all that, it’s really humbling.
We are not just a menstrual cup social enterprise. We are here as a movement to support people who had periods, and uplift people to a space of equality. I’m really excited about where we are heading.
Why should our Lattitude volunteers look into Wā Collective?
I wish I had heard of menstrual cups before travelling. When I went to India, I had to pack 8 months worth of tampons and pads and liners with me, because I was going to an area where I didn’t know if they would be available. As it turned out, there wasn’t a tampon in sight, let alone in conversation to be able to find one! So, literally, the bottom quarter of my backpack was filled with menstrual products, and space is at a premium when you are travelling! Not to mention, when you are out and about, how do you dispose of them, what if you can’t find a toilet, how do you stay hygienic… it can be really difficult.
And so, if I had had a Wā Cup, for a start, I would have had a lot more space in my pack, and moreover, it would have made life so much easier.
Why would you recommend a gap year to others considering it?
Every single experience you have or decision you make can open doors, and who knows what lies behind them. By taking an opportunity like a gap year abroad with Lattitude, that experience is going to lead you to places you potentially didn’t even dream of. It can provide you with a platform of knowledge and experience and confidence to be able to boost yourself through those open doors.
Coming back into uni after having some time out was amazing. I was able to approach adult learning with this clarity that my peers perhaps didn’t have, and I had a skill-set that I had developed overseas that I could then put towards my studies. I feel I got so much more out of it, than if I had just blundered into university, completely burnt out right out of high school. I’m so glad I had that break.
Also, the more and more I thought about it during my time away, I realised what a privilege it is to gain a tertiary education. Many of the people in the community I became a part of, they would have done absolutely anything to be able to gain that higher education, and for a lot of them, no matter what, they are not going to be able to get there just because of the circumstances they were born into. I felt it would have been a real waste for me to miss this opportunity that I had of gaining a tertiary education, and through that new skillset, taking it further.
PS: Sadly, Lattitude is not currently offering India as a gap year destination next year, due to new visa stipulations etc. HEAPS of other amazing destinations to head to though! Have a look at our country list for 2019 here:
If Olie has inspired YOU to take a gap year abroad: Apply Now!