Period: a documentary about menstruation wins the Oscar

Swetha Chodavarpu
Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash
Published on February 12, 2020

“I am not crying because I am on my period or anything. I can’t believe a film on menstruation won an Oscar,” Zehtabchi said at the 91st Academy Awards. Rayka Zehtabchi is an Iranian-American film director whose documentary entitled Period. End of Sentence.” won the Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). The documentary was produced by Guneet Monga, a renowned Indian film producer, who also received kudos. “Guneet Monga – know that you have been empowering women all over the world fight for menstrual equality,” Zehtabchi added in her winning speech. In what was a moving celebration of menstrual equality, Melissa Burton, a teacher at Oakwood High, stated, “A period should end a sentence, not a girl’s education.” 

Period. End of Sentence.” is a documentary cataloging a movement born out of dedication to make a difference in the lives of women all over the world. The documentary paid tribute to what was initially a school club – The Pad Project. The Pad Project was started by Helen Yenser, a senior at Oakwood School, who first spoke about menstruation during her class presentation. Encouraged by the response she received after her presentation and upon gaining insight into the taboo shrouding menstruation, a normal bodily function, by the way, Helen Yenser started the aforementioned school club. While in this particular high school in L.A., the young schoolgirls and their teacher, Melissa Burton, tried to find creative solutions to the problem, another individual in a different part of the world was concerned with the same problem, this time closer to the issue’s epicenter.

Arunachalam Muruganantham, based in Coimbatore, India, spent about 7 years perfecting his new invention: The Pad Machine. The Pad Machine was an ambitious and novel solution to one of the main hurdles concerning menstruation in developing countries. The problem being, women in most under-developed or developing countries, unarmed with adequate supplies or information, use unhygienic everyday-items in lieu of pads or tampons. These items include dry leaves or old rags. Not only does this cause the spreading of diseases, but it also makes the topic of menstruation seem like a dirty, private, and unforgivable act. In addition to being a difficult topic of conversation, menstruation in India is viewed as an unholy occurrence; menstruating women are forbidden from entering places of worship such as Temples. In some villages, women are not allowed to go to school or even the kitchen while on their period. 

What happened next is a story worthy of the Oscars. The formerly addressed school club, The Pad Project, organized a fundraiser for Arunachalam Muruganantham’s machine: The Pad Machine. Eventually, the ambitious project was realized with the help of Oakwood School and Action India. It received the funds required to be produced and sent to a village called Harpur in India. The documentary, Period. End of Sentence. highlights the story of Suman from Harpur – a young girl who sought to escape a harrowing reality by becoming a police officer. The village of Harpur consists of laudable women who rebelliously tried to break the stereotypes associated with menstruation. The Pad Machine that was sent to Harpur was used to produce hygienic pads at cheaper prices and helped illuminate what was otherwise a dark subject of conversation. The women at Harpur quickly took to the machine and found in it a new source of employment. What was more, they found the freedom that basic rights beget. The machine is now on its way to various other developing nations in the hope that it can help revolutionize the menstruation story. 

Social causes including the one being discussed in this article can only truly be appreciated when we quantify the abstract. The landscape analysis of the Menstrual Health in India sponsored by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, upon thorough research, has provided the following facts. “There are over 355 million menstruating women and girls in India, but millions of women across the country still face significant barriers to a comfortable and dignified experience with menstrual hygiene management (MHM). A study found that 71% of girls in India report having no knowledge of menstruation before their first period. At menarche, schoolgirls in Jaipur, Rajasthan report their dominant feelings to be: shock (25%), fear (30%), anxiety (69%), guilt (22%), and frustration (22%).

Further, 70% of women in India say their families cannot afford to buy sanitary pads. And in 2012, 40% of all government schools lacked a functioning common toilet, and another 40% lacked a separate toilet for girls.” According to Menstrual Health In Kenya, “Formative research shows that girls face monthly challenges, with 65% of women and girls in Kenya unable to afford sanitary pads. Only 50% of girls say that they openly discuss menstruation at home. Just 32% of rural schools have a private place for girls to change their menstrual products. And only 12% of girls in Kenya would be comfortable receiving the information from their mother.” The problem, however, is not restricted to the developing countries. In the U.S., more than one in eight women living below the poverty line are unable to adequately afford sanitary products including pads, tampons, and menstrual cups. That figure amounts to 24.6 million Americans being unable to feel comfortable during their period. Across the world, an estimated 100 million young women lack access to adequate menstrual products. 

Today there are many organizations, both local and international, that work on raising awareness and providing adequate menstrual hygiene supplies. However, most of the assistance is only being provided by Non-Governmental Organizations because the governments in many countries, both developed and developing, continue to tax pads and tampons as a luxury item and not as a necessity. In the U.S., most states charge sales tax for women’s pads and tampons. There have been some changes to the tampon taxes, but most of these changes are state-level or by city. In India, several advocacy groups and celebrities protested the tax, including a viral campaign called #LahuKaLagaan – or “tax on blood” – started by an organization called SheSays. Their efforts came to fruition as tampons are now tax-free in India. Australia also provided a ray of hope by scrapping the controversial Tampon Tax in 2018. For most of the world though, there is still a long way to go to ensure safer, healthier, and more affordable menstrual products

In an attempt to raise awareness and allow for easier discussion, the #PeriodEmoji campaign was started by Plan International UK. The organization ran a survey in 2017 that revealed how uncomfortable women were in talking about their period. The campaign that started soon after the survey to break the period taboo was successful. All our phones will soon have the emoji as a symbol for the stance against period taboo and for menstrual equality. 

While there is a lot more to be accomplished and plenty of women to reach out to, we can still celebrate the warm victory that is “Period. End of sentence.” 

Bibliography:

FSG foundation, Menstrual Health in India, Country Landscape Analysis. Access Data: https://menstrualhygieneday.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/FSG-Menstrual-Health-Landscape_India.pdf

FSG foundation, Menstrual Health in Kenya, Country Landscape Analysis. Access Data: https://menstrualhygieneday.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/FSG-Menstrual-Health-Landscape_Kenya.pdf

Iyengar, Rishi, “India scraps controversial tax on sanitary pads”, 22 July 2018, CNN. Access Data: 
https://edition.cnn.com/2018/07/22/health/india-tampon-tax-intl/index.html

Meixler, Eli, “Australia Ditches Controversial Tampon Tax After 18 Years of Outrage From Women’s Rights Groups”, 3 October 2018, Time. Access Data:
https://time.com/5413585/australia-ends-tampon-tax-gst/

Mercado, Mia, “7 Statistics show the startling reality of period problems around the world”, 14 June 2017, Bustle. Access Data: 
https://www.bustle.com/p/7-statistics-that-show-the-startling-reality-of-period-problems-around-the-world-64399

Plan International UK, “#PeriodEmoji – Let’s Break the Period Taboo” Access Data:
https://plan-uk.org/act-for-girls/join-our-campaign-for-a-period-emoji

Wikipedia Page on Tampon Tax, Access Data: 
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tampon_tax#United_States

Reviewed by Alessandra Monticelli
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