In 2017, a group of women in rural Uttar Pradesh started manufacturing and distributing sanitary pads in their village. A documentary on their work recently won an Oscar, writes Nibedita Saha.

 

Period. End of Sentence, a 26-minute documentary on menstruation, won the Oscar in the “Documentary Short Subject” category at the 91st Academy Awards held in Los Angeles last week. Set in rural India, the film highlights the social stigma attached to menstruation and depicts the struggles of women who helped install sanitary pad-making machines in the Hapur district of Uttar Pradesh.

The documentary is directed by Iranian-American filmmaker Rayka Zehtabchi, and produced by Indian producer Guneet Monga under the banner of Sikhya
Entertainment.

The film was made as part of the “Pad Project”, started by students at the Oakwood School in Los Angeles and their teacher, Melissa Berton. The initiative is also supported by Action India, an NGO which has been working in Hapur from the past 19 years on different issues such as child labour, menstrual hygiene and self-sustainable skills for women.

Shabana Khan has been serving as the area coordinator in Hapur for Action India since 2001. She spoke to Guardian 20 about how the first sanitary pad-making machine was installed in Hapur’s Kathikhera village in February 2017.

Khan recalled the strong resistance the project faced. She said, “Initially, the whole village was against us, even the people believed that we really want to work for their betterment. We had to face a lot of problems but we fought against all the odds.”

(L-R) Oakwood School teacher Melissa Berton, director Rayka Zehtabchi and producer Guneet Monga.

Rayka Zehtabchi’s documentary focuses on the first machine installed in Kathikhera, in the house of a woman named Suman, who has been associated with Action India since 2010 as a volunteer.

Around six months ago, another pad-making machine was set up by Action India in the Sudna village of Hapur.

Shabana Khan feels that the movie and the big win at the Oscars have brought welcome recognition to their work.  She said, “This 26-minute film does not only show the struggles of installing the machine but also captures the years of hard work we put in to raise awareness. We got recognition all over the world because of the film. I am very happy as our years’ worth of hard work is being recognised and appreciated by people across the globe.”

Currently, the pad-making machine in Kathikhera is being used by a group of seven women. They are using the brand name FLY for the sanitary pads they manufacture.  The women are also responsible for promoting and marketing their products.

One of the young workers here, Rakhi, who also features in the documentary, spoke to us about how the film helped start a dialogue around the subject of menstruation in her village. She said, “The film crew people came to our village and stayed for 15-20 days. They were the first ones to talk to us about periods openly. Though the whole village was quite suspicious about this project, it happened
at last.”

Today, the project has proved a resounding success. She said, “Before the film happened, we girls could never talk about menstrual problems freely. My father and brother also did not know what I was working for. Only my mother was aware of it. Earlier, I had told my father that I make diapers for babies, but now he knows that I make sanitary pads. My brother also helps me with the work now.”

Sushila is one of the members of Sabla Samiti, a group of social workers in Hapur closely tied with Action India. She spoke to us about her association with this project. “When the machine was installed in Kathikhera, the whole village was skeptical about the machine, especially the males in the village. People used to make fun of us. Even the women were unaware of the use of pads. It was very hard for us to make people in the village understand our work,” she said.

Sushila went on to add, “Menstrual hygiene is one of the biggest concerns for women. The girls who helped us in making pads chose not to talk about their work with their family members because of the huge social taboo associated with it. The elder women of the village opposed our work as they thought using pads is a waste of money. But we tried our best to make them understand the usefulness of sanitary pads and the concept of menstrual hygiene.”

After the Oscar win Sushila feels overwhelmed. “It took us a lot of time to change the mentality but we did not lose hope. The film has spread our story in every corner of the world and we have got appreciation for our work. I can’t express my happiness now that the film has received an Oscar. It is a big moment for us. It is like we have finally got our due for all the hard work we have put in,” she said.

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