When a group of feminist high school students at Oakwood School in North Hollywood first learned about the taboo surrounding menstruation in developing countries, they were compelled to do something about it. Through an organisation called Girls Learn International, they were paired with a partner organisation in India, and were alarmed to discover how the attitudes around menstruation impacted women's ability to get an education and seek work.
So, the student members of Girls Learn International, along with their teacher Melissa Berton, raised funds to send a manual pad-making machine and a year's worth of supplies to women in Hapur, a tiny rural village outside of Delhi, India. The pad machine would not only provide pads for the women to use, but also create a micro-economy for the women running the machine.
Being from Los Angeles, the students understood the power of film, and tapped director Rayka Zehtabchi to make a documentary to raise awareness about the cause. The end product, Period. End of Sentence., which is streaming on Netflix now, follows women in Hapur as they learn to make pads and educate other men and women in their community about menstruation.
"We learned that [menstruation is] very complex, and it’s a multi-layered issue — something that has been deeply rooted, a stigma deeply rooted, in Indian culture and society forever," says Rayka Zehtabchi, director of Period. End of Sentence. Many women they interviewed for the documentary had initially never heard of pads before, or had and felt too embarrassed to buy them. Others couldn't explain what a period was, they just knew it was bad. "When so few people talk about it, and there's very little information around what this natural phenomenon really is, it starts to build fear around it," she says.
Now, Period. End of Sentence. is nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary short. Ahead of the Oscars, we spoke with Zehtabchi and Berton, who is a producer on the film, about why this stigma still exists, their experience making the film, and what they hope audiences around the world glean from it:
Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
It's incredible that this was an idea high school students thought up. Were you surprised by how self-starting the students were?
Melissa Berton: "In all honestly, Oakwood got a kind of hippie-esque start, and it's a school that is committed, above all, to social activism. They trust the teachers, and the students, and there's a lot of permissiveness — in a good way. When I first approached our headmaster about this idea, seven years ago when people really weren’t talking about [menstruation], his response was, Yes! How can we help? What can we do?, which I found really incredible.
"The students were just brave and ready to go for it. They did meet some resistance among peers, for sure, there's been embarrassment, there have been concerns about how to approach this the right way. So many things happened that were discouraging along the way, we had to keep going, even though we thought we might not at various points."
Where does this taboo come from and to what extent does this taboo impact women's lives in India?
Rayka Zehtabchi: "When we went to India to shoot the film, it was a really great opportunity to survey hundreds of women and men and understand why menstruation was such a big taboo there. One of the main points that we kept hearing is that, when a girl hits puberty and starts to menstruate, she ultimately blossoms into a woman, and then becomes a target for sexual assault or harassment. What parents try to do is keep it hush-hush, so that when a girl menstruates, no one is really aware. Then, they try to marry off the girl as quickly as possible, because it’s a safer option for the parent."
"The other reason is that literally there's such little access, especially in rural areas we were, and there was maybe one shop right outside the village that had maybe a couple packs of pads for sale. When there's very little access, there's very little attention paid to feminine hygiene, and there's less and less conversation around it. There's all these kind of myths around what menstruation is; the common misconception, especially from the men, is that it’s an illness or it’s impure. In Hindu religion women are not actually allowed in the temple when they menstruate, because they're believed to be dirty.
"So, it’s very complex and I think it has to do with culture, religion, also the safety of a young woman in that area."
What has the response been like to the documentary? Do you keep in touch with the subjects?
Zehtabchi: "It's been nothing but positive reactions, especially from our subjects. Since we released the film, we’ve managed to install two more machines in neighbouring villages, because we're seeing that there's really such a hunger and demand for it there. Word of mouth is really spreading very quickly in the villages. We have certainly been talking to the women there, we’ve been talking to Action India, an NGO that has been really key in this whole process, and we're so excited to say that we have a couple of the subjects are actually gonna be attending the Oscars with us."
Berton: "In the film, Rekha put the wages toward her police exam, and more women in the village have been able to use the wages from the machine to put toward their chosen careers. One wants to be in medicine, another wants to be in business, and they’ve both been able to pursue that because of the wages they got."
Zehtabchi: "When I first went to India in 2017 and started talking to these women, Rekha wasn’t even willing to have a conversation with us about menstruation; she would completely shut down and go silent. The other women were just on track to get married, very, very soon, and start to have a family — there was really no other option in sight for them. Hearing that someone wants to study medicine, I just get so emotional thinking about that, because it's crazy to see how amazing these women have become."