The following article was first published on Women’s Web on the link provided above.
Tomorrow, the most awaited film awards across the globe, the 91st Academy Awards or ‘The Oscars’ will be honouring some of the best cinema that has been made in the world this year. Along with the who’s who of Hollywood, Indian born producer Guneet Monga will also be present along with a group of schoolgirls and their teacher from Oakwood School, North Hollywood for their documentary, ‘Period. End of a Sentence’, that has been shortlisted in the Short Subject category. The film, directed by the Iranian-American director, Rayka Zehtabchi is a project that was initiated by the group of students and teachers from Oakwood School along with the support of their parents.
As I watched this documentary that is now available on Netflix, I know that this account that is set in the village of Hapur in Uttar Pradesh -60 kilometres from the capital New Delhi- could be a story from any part of rural and peri-urban India.
According to Water Aid India, India is home to around 120 million adolescent girls— that is roughly 10 percent of the population. A totally normal biological occurrence that is so important in a healthy woman is still steeped in ignorance and young girls and women have to still struggle with it month after month.
The film opens with a group of girls being questioned about what exactly a Period is. The query is met with giggles and a girl says that she is too shy to elaborate. When elderly women are questioned, they answer that it is ‘ganda khoon’ or ‘impure blood’. When young men are questioned their answer is that it is a disease affecting women. Quite obviously, there is still unimaginable ignorance surrounding menstruation, as it is a subject that is taboo and spoken in hushed tones.
The story is narrated through a group of women, the central protagonist being Sneha, a young woman who wants to join the Delhi Police Force. She aspires to become independent and wants to ‘save’ herself from marriage. In Hapur, like many other parts of India, women use rags, old clothes and any other absorbent material they get their hands on, and this puts them at risk of infections.
In the long run, when a girl faces obstacles in managing her period in a healthy way, what is at jeopardy is not only her health but also her self-confidence. The documentary goes on to show that many young girls have not heard of pads and if they have, they do not know how to use them. This lack of knowledge of hygiene products affects their attendance in school and is a major reason for school-dropouts amongst girls in Hapur.
This is where the students from Oakwood School wanted to make a difference and decided that a ‘Period’ should end a sentence and not a girl’s education.
The non-profit organisation that they have formed called ‘The Pad Project’ raised money and installed ‘Padman’ Arunachalam Muruganantham’s machine that makes affordable, biodegradable pads from locally sourced materials. The installation of the machine is successful in starting a conversation about menstruation which until then was taboo. In addition, a self-help group is created that is trained to make sanitary pads and this becomes a source of income for many women who have never worked in their lives.
The film also focuses on the issue of patriarchy which does not acknowledge that the product (the sanitary pad) is being created for women. There are challenges such as issues of continuous electricity supply, but the women manage to meet their targets and are ready to sell the sanitary pads. The 25 minutes film shows the subtle shift in the confidence of the women working in this project and as ‘Padman’ Muruganantham sums it up by saying: “The strongest creature on earth is not the elephant, not the tiger, but the girl.”
The only lacuna in the project, according to me, is that it does not tell the viewer about how sanitary waste will be handled. As the pads are biodegradable, will it be composted? If it has a plastic sheath, will that not come in the way? Is the Pad Project thinking about installing a sanitary napkin incinerator? As a viewer, I would imagine that introducing menstrual cups would go a long way in easing hygiene issues during menstruation and making it more sustainable. But as a beginning, the project needs to be lauded and is a must-see documentary that I hope will be lauded at the Oscars.