There are things we take for granted in our world and cities. Access to clean water and access to good sanitation. As women, we complain about our periods, but if we’re lucky we have access to everything we could possibly want.
In many parts of the world, including right here in America, many women don’t have access to sanitary pads, Stigma is placed on women and menstruation and young girls who get their period because they don’t have access to feminine hygiene.
Period. End Of Sentence. is an Oscar-nominated short from director Rayka Zehtabchi. She takes us into a rural village outside of Delhi where women are quietly leading a revolution against this stigma. There’s a clip in the short where the men are asked if they know what a period is, and they don’t know the answer.
Period. End Of Sentence. shines a light on the women who have learned to manufacture their own pads and in turn empower them and other women in their community. I caught up with director Rayka Zehtabchi and producer Melissa Berton to talk about this journey and how this little engine that could, Period. End Of Sentence. is helping raise awareness.
Were you with the girls when the Oscar nominations were announced?
Melissa: Oh yes! We gathered in the basement of one of the girls, one of the Oakwood 10th grade students. I think there were five or six high schoolers, one of the alums of the Pad Project. Parents were there. Rayka was there. Sam our DP was there too.
I think there were fifteen people and everyone had someone they were face-timing with. We all gathered to the TV.
When they said our film, we were screaming and going crazy.
Let’s go all the way back. Rayka, you’re friends with Garrett Schiff and that’s how you initially heard about the issue. So, tell us the story.
Rayka: Garrett is the father of Ruby Schiff who was one of the original girls involved at Oakwood.
It was brought to my attention that there’s this big issue all over the world, especially in developing countries where women and girls are having to drop out of school because of their periods and a lack of access to feminine hygiene products.
I was told that there were some high school girls who were part of the GLI group at Oakwood who were really passionate about this issue and about finding a solution to the problem.
Their English teacher Melissa Berton wanted to make a documentary about this problem and spread awareness.
Melissa: Around 2013, I traveled with students as the faculty sponsor for GLI (Girls Learn International). We traveled to the United Nations to be delegates at the United Nations’ annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Students are real-life delegates who start at the age of 16. It was here that the students and I learned about this issue of girls dropping out of school when they get their periods. We also learned about Muruganantham in India who had made this very simple machine where women could make pads and create a micro-economy and provide pads that were cleaner and more hygienic than what they were using.
We had never even considered such a thing. The fact that there was this machine that could do this, we immediately determined that the best way to raise awareness about this issue was to make a film and we wanted to send one of Muruganantham’s pad machine to one of our partner organizations that GLI works with Action India.
We kept going and going. It was three years of research on the machine, working with the Feminist Majority Foundation, working with GLI, Action India, and also getting permission from the school to be public facing about an issue where you have 15-year-old girls stand up at assembly and say, “Hey, we’re raising awareness for a pad machine because we want girls to go to school when they get their periods” was even “oh my God.”
We decided we’d start a Kickstarter to raise the funds to make the documentary and that’s around the time that Rayka became involved.
Over this time, the students who it began with are now as old as 25 and 23 and 22. When Rayka came on board, the students were juniors and seniors. Those students are now in college.
Now, we have 9th graders involved so it’s been a really beautiful passing of the torch from class to class.
We made a Kickstarter on our own, but it wasn’t very good. We had all the passion, all the information, but then Rayka came on board.
Ruby Schiff who is one of the students, reached out to her father, who then reached out to Rayka and then the rest is history.
Rayka, you packed your bags and you flew to India. What was your first reaction when you’re out there in the village to see that first hand? We just take so much for granted and there you are seeing these women.
Before going to the village, I was so taken aback when I learned about this issue because I had never thought about it before. I never thought it was an issue that women were dealing with around the world and also right here in the USA.
When we arrived in the village, the first time we arrived, it was around the time the pad machine was being installed. I was so completely astonished. You hear these things in news reports but it’s a very different experience when you’re talking to the women who experience it first hand. It’s astonishing and heartbreaking to know there are women out there who are 50 and had been going through menstruation their entire lives and didn’t know why they were menstruating and were being told by village elders and other people that there was something wrong with them and that they had an illness.
What broke my heart was that these women were so strong and so incredible that once we started talking about periods and menstruation, the fear would set in, they’d backtrack and not want to go there. They’d try to change the subject. As a woman myself, it really was heartbreaking to see that something that is so natural and so beautiful and something that gives women strength can actually be a source of fear and shame and is really the reason they’re being shamed and sequestered.
Was that easy to shoot in the village or did you have to do a covert operation to get them to open up?
It was incredibly challenging as you can imagine. Logistically going into villages in enough itself is a problem. These places are really rural and a lot of these people don’t often have outsiders coming in. Firstly, very obviously we are foreigners. We’re coming into their village with a camera crew. We’d try our best to strip the crew down and have a very small skeleton crew with limited gear. The bottom line was you had a camera in someone’s face and you’re entering a stranger’s home. You’re talking about something that they’ve gone their entire lives avoiding. A lot of the beginning of the film that you see is what we had captured on our first trip days before the machine was installed.
You really get a sense for how uncomfortable these subjects were and how reluctant they were to share any experiences or inside information about their periods and how other people perceive periods.
It was challenging, but as a filmmaker, you’re there to capture the truth. We embrace that. We were very respectful of our subjects and we tried to have lots of conversations before the camera rolled trying to get to know our subjects personally, but also to connect with them as another young woman would. I think that helped over time as they realized what we were doing would be beneficial not only to them but also to the women in their lives.
I think over time once the pad machine was installed, I think it helped chip away at some of that shame and taboo.
When we returned to India, it was six months after, the machine was fully operating, the women were making pads and the women were learning how to package them so they could distribute them. It was absolutely remarkable what we witnessed when we went back, there was a complete shift in the women’s behavior towards menstruation. I think overall, there was a feeling of confidence and ‘I can do this. I own a business. I am capable of bringing money into my own family home. I don’t need to ask permission for the things I want to achieve in my life.’
How many machines are there now?
Melissa: They’re upgrading their machines in the village because they want something that’s more automated than what they have now. They’ve already figured out that they want the shape better. They’re going to invest in a machine that is more automated and can make a pad more in tune to their liking.
Their reliable source of electricity is a problem, so we’re looking to help get solar panels. That’s something the students are working on.
Since that machine became successful, there’s another machine in the village called Sudena and one that’s coming into another village. Since the time of the filming began, Muruganantham’s machine was almost the only one. It’s become a cottage industry all over India. If you got there, there are all sorts of pad machines, but that said, it’s still in its infancy.
Rayka: What’s so cool is that you see them wanting to upgrade their machines. They’re so eager to make more pads and there’s such a high demand for them now that women are becoming more educated and understanding the importance of menstrual hygiene. They feel the machine can’t keep up with how many pads they’re able to produce each day. It goes to show there is a desire from these women to have this business in place and there’s a need for the pads in these areas.
Melissa: Our partner school and organization we work with, Action India. Since the time of the film, they have sent out over 400 peer educators to the local schools near Delhi which is a little further afield and a little more urban than where the village is. They’ve gone with their pads.
Delhi is sophisticated and huge. There are rural villages which are far, and in between, there’s something between the village and the city in terms of progressiveness, and so they’ve been going to school there showing them their pads where they have high school girls with the pads and the young people have been very receptive.
There’s been some resistance from some women who are older in the village and they still like to use the cloth, but among young people in school to those in their 30’s, people are really switching over and that’s exciting.
What can people do to help after they read this or they see the documentary?
Melissa: The students have organized an educational program around this issue on www.thepadproject.org. It’s the non-profit that we made to raise the funds for the film, but the mission is to connect communities in developing countries that wish to facilitate the installation or sending of a pad machine in their neighborhoods and help them get started.
There’s one in Uganda working really well. We’re looking to install one in Sierra Leonne. The best way to help is to spread the word and go to the site.
What we hope to do with the students is to have them be the emissaries. Say high school B, we’ll connect them with a student from the Pad Project and we’ll screen the film for your high school and we’ll have a Q&A after.
It’s definitely an issue in the US as well. They put free pads in a lower socio-economic area recently in New York and attendance went up. It’s not just a developing country issue.