In 2019, it shouldn’t be noteworthy that Netflix has produced a documentary on the subject of periods. And yet it is.
Further adding to the noteworthiness of this event, is the documentary’s Academy Award Win in the Documentary (Short Subject) category.
This begs the question: Who or what has connected menstrual health, Netflix and the Oscars? Enter The Pad Project a not-for-profit established by a teacher and her students in Los Angeles, California, to dismantle the barriers women and girls face related to their periods.
These barriers are universal in nature and can vary wildly depending on a number of factors including financial circumstances, religious practices, cultural pressures, harmful social norms and access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene services. Many of these barriers result in knock-on effects that can deeply impact on a woman’s lifelong trajectory. For example, there is a direct correlation between menstruation and girls dropping out of education due to some of the barriers mentioned above. Now that is noteworthy.
Ultimately, the founders of The Pad Project believe, “A period should end a sentence, not a girl’s education”
Released on 12 February 2019, Period. End of Sentence. is a 25-minute collaboration between The Pad Project and an Indian production house.
Directed by Rayka Zehtabchi, the short film tells several somewhat interrelated stories of girls, women and men from the Hapur district, on the outskirts of New Delhi in India.
In telling these stories, the film explores the shame, stigma and misinformation surrounding female menstruation and the dismantling of these negative/harmful attitudes, barriers and practises. The film is simultaneously communicating development (to the viewer) while also showing communication for development and social change in practice, particularly as it relates to behaviour change communication.
Much of the impetus for this social and behavioural shift is as a direct consequence of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a man who Time Magazine called, “an unlikely advocate for women’s menstrual health.” Muruganantham witnessed his own wife facing financial barriers, which prohibited her from purchasing sanitary pads, instead being forced to use other materials such as a cloth. This drove him to explore developing his own pads, subsequently leading to his new nickname of ‘Pad Man’ and to the invention of the machinery and accompanying manufacturing process that we see in the documentary
It is this machine that The Pad Project now fundraises for with the aim of enabling increased access to pads for women and girls, while also creating an avenue of steady income for the women that take on production of the pads. The Pad Project sees their role as:
Connecting with activists on the ground who have communicated the need for a machine.
Learning about the area’s specific needs from the local experts and making sure that The Pad Project can supply enough funds to cover each one (for example, they always check if an area has sufficient power, and if they don’t, The Pad Project will also supply solar panels).
Raising enough money for one machine, a years’ worth of supplies (after which the machine and its profits will become a self-sufficient microeconomy for the women in the area), and a team of local women who can educate other women on how to use the machine and also how to destigmatize periods.
The short film chronicles the behavioural shifts that begin to occur across communities following the installation of the machine used to make sanitary pads. It is hard to credit that a film of just 25 minutes could manage to adequately cover female empowerment, gender inequality, access to education, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), patriarchal societies, religion, harmful social and cultural norms and entrepreneurship, but this documentary certainly packs a lot into a little amount of time.
The processes of social change illustrated in the film range from peer to peer testimony to elder community members acting as advocates for women and girls to consider using pads despite the previous barriers being in place that would have made this impossible.
Given that Netflix is one the world’s largest streaming platforms, huge significance can be placed on their decision to distribute the documentary based on a subject that in most societies is still considered taboo.
Furthermore, it is certainly not the case that ‘period poverty’ is an issue confined only to the Global South. In 2018, The Guardian stated that in the UK, “Period poverty is prevalent. The latest research from children’s charity Plan International UK reports that one in 10 young women (aged 14-21) have been unable to afford period products. In London, this number is closer to one in seven.” NGOs such as The Red Box Project are trying to fill this unmet need, as is 16-year-old Bimini Iove who has also started an initiative (Street Cramps) to provide sanitary products for those that currently don’t have access.
In her now well known essay from 1978, If Men Could Menstruate, Gloria Steinem stated that in an imagined scenario where only men could menstruate and women could not, “Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free. (Of course, some men would still pay for the prestige of commercial brands such as John Wayne Tampons, Muhammad Ali’s Rope-a-dope Pads, Joe Namath Jock Shields—“For Those Light Bachelor Days,” and Robert “Baretta” Blake Maxi-Pads.)” Forty years on, it is hard to fathom that so many issues related to periods and period poverty are still so prevalent.
Period. End of Sentence. is now streaming on Netflix.