BY THEA BURKE ’20
“A period should end a sentence, not a girl’s education.” This is the tagline for the short documentary, “Period. End of Sentence”, that won the Oscar for best short documentary at the 91st Academy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 24. The documentary was born from the passion project of high school students at Oakwood School in the LA area of California. Through Kickstarter campaigns and bake sales, the students were able to raise money for two $11,000 machines that make pads for women in Kathikhera, a rural village outside of Delhi, India. In her tearful and ecstatic acceptance speech, 25-year-old director Rayka Zehtabchi joked, “I’m not crying because I’m on my period or anything. I can’t believe that a film about menstruation just won an Oscar!”
Menstruation remains a taboo topic in much of the world. In India, it is considered disrespectful for a girl or woman who is menstruating to enter a temple or even some people’s homes and kitchens. Menstruation is similarly taboo in Nepal, where the practice of sending a menstruating girl or woman to a shed for the duration of her period was banned as recently as 2017. In the same year, over 137,700 girls in England skipped school because they did not have access to sanitary products; in Kenya, the number was over one million, with up to 6 weeks of school missed each. “Period. End of Sentence” is a documentary hoping to change that by providing women and girls in India with an education about periods and sanitary products made and sold by local Indian women, as well as providing an education on the issue to a wider audience. The machines that Oakwood students were able to provide for women in Kathikhera now produce enough pads for a whole rural village.
The machines featured in the documentary that the students in California fundraised for were the brain child of a man named Arunachalam Muruganantham, who, upon shopping for sanitary napkins for his wife, discovered that the only kinds available were expensive because they had to be imported — so he set his mind on figuring out how to manufacture them himself. In addition to providing clean sanitary products — a resource that many of the girls featured in the documentary lack — “Fly” pads have now become a thriving business for the women of Kathikhera who partake in making them. The name “Fly” was chosen to evoke the metaphorical flight of a girl or woman who has access to quality menstrual products.
The machines’ success has other positive impacts on the women of the village. One woman featured in the film feels as though she has gained more respect from her husband because she has a well-paying job beyond the domestic responsibilities that she and many other women find limiting. They praise the “Pad Project” for giving them a sense of fulfillment.
The “Pad Project” is the worldwide organization that “Period. End of Sentence” has launched since its release. The organization’s website highlights the need for sanitary menstrual products and the drastic impacts that barred access can have. “Too many girls cannot afford or access sanitary pads, which means that when they get their period, they have to turn to unhealthy alternatives like dirty rags, leaves or ashes. On top of their high risk of infection every time their period comes, they also have to miss school — and the more school they miss, the more likely it becomes that they will fall too far behind and have to drop out entirely,” the website reads. In addition to being clean, the products made by The Pad Project are biodegradable. The website offers ways to become involved, such as donation and, if part of an institution, partnering with another school or institution to begin your own “pad project” through fundraising.
The topic of menstrual hygiene has been gaining traction over the last few years. Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle has championed the cause since she starred on the legal drama “Suits” prior to her marriage to Prince Harry, and continues to do so in her royal role. Suhani Jalota, founder of the Indian women’s empowerment organization that provides lowcost sanitary products, the Myna Mahila Foundation, said that Markle made the issue “more credible” by making a trip to Mumbai, India where the foundation is based. The issue of credibility is a big one — many times, issues like this need the exposure that figures like Zehtabchi and Markle provide. Already, the attention garnered by the Oscar nomination alone has allowed for two more pad machines to be purchased for rural villages in India.
Zehtabchi views the Oscar win as an important platform that may be able to help them raise more money for more machines. Although some believe that awards shows like the Oscars are becoming increasingly outdated, the win for “Period. End of Sentence” provides a look at how filmmaking and the platform that the Oscars lend is still a relevant cultural practice that can motivate change.