An Oscar for a film on periods is just what the world needed

91st Academy Awards - Show
Melissa Berton, centre left, and Rayka Zehtabchi accept the award for best documentary short subject for "Period. End of Sentence." at the Oscars | Photo: AFP

Period. End of Sentence, just won the Oscar for the Best Documentary Short at the 91st Academy Awards. It is an incredible victory for women around the world who battle menstruation-based stigma and taboos all their lives. It speaks volumes, when upon winning the Oscar, director Rayka Zehtabchi, innocently blurted out: “I can't believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar!"

Period. End of Sentence is based on The Pad Project, a heart touching venture from a bunch of school kids and a teacher from the Oakwood High School in Los Angeles in the US. The story goes back a few years, when Los-Angeles-based teacher Melissa Berton helped her daughter and friends launch The Pad Project after they learnt about the extent of stigma associated with menstruation in countries like India. They pooled enough money to set up a pad-making machine, inspired by India's 'padman' Arunachalam Muruganantham, in a remote village of Kathikhera in Uttar Pradesh. The village had no access to sanitary napkins and the women and children suffered due to poor menstrual hygiene. The girls in the village would even quit schooling once they attain puberty. These pad-making machines, funded by Berton and her girls, help the village's women make their own sanitary napkins, and attain financial independence too, all while battling opposition and stigma.

Upon winning the Oscar, producer Guneet Monga said in a statement: “Thank you to the Academy for the highest honour and for recognising the efforts of the young girls from Oakwood school in LA to Kathikera in UP in helping us shatter the glass ceiling. Periods are normal and in no way do they stops us from achieving anything.”

“Every girl in India or anywhere around the world needs to know this and hear this loud and clear. Period is an end of a sentence but not a girl’s education,” she said.

Menstrual taboos are deeply rooted in many world cultures. From not allowing menstruating women to cook food or enter places of worship, to keeping them in distant huts or outhouses, women are subjected to a range of inhumane practices. According to reports, in India, 23 per cent of girls drop out of school after they reach puberty, and more than 80 per cent of the women still use dangerously unhygienic filthy rags due to lack of access to sanitary napkins. Sample this: Eight of 10 Indian girls are not allowed to enter religious shrines when they are on their period. Six of 10 girls are not allowed to touch food in the kitchen. Three of 10 are asked to sleep in a separate room. These were some of the findings from a UNICEF-funded study by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, published in 2016. Half of adolescent girls who were part of the study had no idea what menstruation was, when they got their first period.

A scene from 'Period. End of Sentence'

Period stigma is not a third world problem, or something that you just happen to spot in rural areas or outside cushy city limits. The urban, so-called-elite of developing and even developed countries like the US are no better. "After seeing the film I hope people understand this period stigma doesn't just affect those in India, we experience it in the United States and in other cultures as well," Zehtabchi had told Glamour earlier.

Zehtabchi also said that this was a film not just for women, but for men, too. This Academy Award recognition for menstruation comes as a sweet revenge for the women. A sweet revenge against men who find the subject 'icky'. Last week, news reports revealed an anonymous confession from a male member of the Academy's jury that Zehtabchi's film was well done, but he doesn't think men would vote for it because the film was about women getting their periods, and it is just icky for men. He did not vote for Period. End of Sentence, and some of the other men didn't too.

Ever since the film released, it has helped the girls get more funding and send more pad-making machines to other villages in India. Period. End of Sentence is just another step in the global efforts against period stigma. Many organisations, artists and filmmakers are working towards doing away with the 'shame'. In recent times, Bollywood films like Phullu and Padman (based on the life of Muruganantham), have also made huge strides in normalising the conversation around menstruation.

And an Academy Award for the 'icky' subject is just the kind of recognition this fight needed. More power to you, women. And to all the men who understand this is a basic physiological phenomenon, inherent to the identity of a woman. And a phenomenon that makes the world, literally.

(This story first appeared in The Week)

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