By Mona Nair

Gina Rodriguez is best known for her award-winning role in "Jane the Virgin," but the actress, producer and activist has long championed many causes, especially education. Her latest mission is bringing an end to what is known as "period poverty" and its effect on young women's school attendance and educational opportunities.

Nearly one in five girls in the U.S. have had to miss or leave school because they lacked access to products such as sanitary napkins during their menstrual period, in large part due to economic factors, according to a survey commissioned by Always. Rodriguez partnered with the brand to bring attention to the period poverty epidemic through the #EndPeriodPoverty campaign, which aims to donate 15 million period products to school pantry programs across the U.S.

“Education is the end all, be all. It is the reason I am here today, it is the reason I have had the opportunities that I have had,” said Rodriguez.

Rodriguez recalled how her education shaped her successful artistic journey. During her sophomore year of high school, Rodriguez’s religious studies teacher taught her about the role of the griot, or storyteller, in West African cultures. Had she missed that class, which inspired her to use acting as storytelling, her trajectory may have been very different, said Rodriguez.

The focus on how menstruation can unfortunately limit girls' and women's lives around the world — from the lack of products to cultural taboos, has gained traction. Recently Meghan Markle, who earlier this year married Britain’s Prince Harry, brought attention to the issue in India. In the U.S., women are pushing state legislatures to ensure access to products in places like prisons; New York City became the first to require free tampons and sanitary pads in correctional facilities, public schools and homeless shelters.

For Rodriguez, ensuring that young girls in the U.S. have access to products during their periods is doable.

“I want to bridge that gap. I want to end that statistic that we have here in this country. And we are capable of doing this," she said. “One of the biggest blessings about being an actor is that you’re given a platform that you can speak on things that matter to you,” Rodriguez said.

In addition to advocating for girls’ health and education, Rodriguez has been outspoken in her support for Puerto Rico relief efforts and the efforts to reunite migrant children and parents separated by the Trump administration.

During the aftermath of Puerto Rico’s hurricane devastation, Rodriguez was among the Latino artists and actors featured in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Almost Like Praying” music video; the proceeds went to benefit relief efforts through the Hispanic Federations’ Unidos Disaster Relief Fund.

Nearly 11 months after Hurricane Maria, the U.S. territory is still struggling to rebuild. Rodriguez has used social media to encourage relief efforts and to remind Americans that the island needs help.

“It’s important for us to have these conversations, to normalize these conversations,” said Rodriguez. “The devastation that’s happening in Puerto Rico doesn’t have to be a devastation. There are so many people that can help.”

Throughout the border crisis, Rodriguez has been active on Twitter, advocating for migrant families to be reunited and empowering people to get involved.

“Unification is the only way in which Latinos can rise in this country positively and successfully,” said Rodriguez. “We must protect those that are being hurt on the border, that are being hurt all over our country, no matter what ethnicity they are, no matter what culture they come from. Latinos have the opportunity to unite and be very powerful.”

Championing roles for Latinos

Rodriguez has also been an advocate for the Latino community when it comes to representation in television and film. In 2017, Rodriguez created her own production company, I Can and I Will, with one goal in mind — to get more Latino representation in Hollywood, both in front of and behind the camera.

“I was twelve years old and I did not see myself on the screen,” said Rodriguez. “We were never really full or multidimensional. We couldn’t be feminine and masculine all in one.”

So Rodriguez spoke about creating her own path.

“I created those spaces myself. And I will continue to create those places so other young men and women of Latino descent can have a place to play and realize we are in every facet of life, just like everyone else,” said Rodriguez. “We feel, just like everyone else. And the human story is just that, human.”

A recent study conducted by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California found that minority representation in Hollywood is scarce. The study found that 64 of the top 100 films from 2017 did not include a single Latina character, 65 were missing Asian females and 43 were devoid of any black female characters.

The actress and advocate exhorted Latinos to support Hispanics producing and starring in films and television. After all, she said, Latinos have purchasing power, and they can send a message by supporting Hispanics in the arts.

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