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Oscar-winning documentary spotlights stigma of women's periods in India

Screengrab, Netflix | Promotional banner for Oscar-winning documentary short "Period. End of Sentence."

"I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar!" an emotional Rayka Zehtabchi cried onstage Sunday night amid applause from Hollywood's glitterati, after “Period. End of Sentence.” won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.

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The Iranian-American director’s 25-minute film, available on Netflix, explores the stigma surrounding menstruation in rural India, where sanitary pads are so rare that most young women are unaware of their existence or have only learned about them on television.

Fewer than 12 percent of women have access to sanitary protection in India, where the topic is so forbidden that one of the documentary’s protagonists calls it the “worst taboo in our country”. Girls don’t discuss it with their mothers, husbands and wives don’t broach it, and even girlfriends don’t speak of it among themselves.

Vaishali Sinha, who directed the feature-length documentary “Ask the Sexpert” and served as a consultant on “Period. End of Sentence.”, attests to the code of silence on menstruation that reigns in her native India. “When I first got my periods, I went through a brief stage where I was too shy to ask for pads, even from my own mother,” she tells FRANCE 24. “There were no discussions about it in school,” she adds, be it during lessons or with her schoolgirl friends.

The power of “Period. End of Sentence.” is that it illustrates the consequences of a taboo that goes well beyond the issue of women’s health in a country where girls are often reduced to using leaves or wood shavings as makeshift protection. The matter of access to education for teenage girls is also at stake. As one woman explains, she dropped out of school within months of her first period, having struggled with the lack of adequate protection or even a place to change on the school premises (not all of which have toilets). Her story is far from exceptional: More than a quarter of young Indian women are obliged to abandon their studies for the same reason.

For the village featured in the film, 60 kilometres (37 miles) outside the Indian capital, periods offered a vector, paradoxically,toward freedom and independence. Women begin to manufacture their own feminine hygiene products at a lower price using a machine made by entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham, whose invention saw him ranked by Time Magazine among the 100 most influential people in the world in 2014. Selling their surplus production, some of the village’s women begin earning their own income for the first time. One uses the proceeds to finance a training course at a New Delhi police academy.

Still, Sinha believes the taboo surrounding periods is not limited to rural India. “Patriarchy and its impact are far-reaching in India. The cities are also full of migrants who were raised in villages or small towns who bring their own sensibilities,” Sinha tells FRANCE 24.

Status and education have not "[necessarily] elevated the quality of young girls’ and women’s lives”.

Bids to break the menstrual taboo in India have proliferated of late. In a 2015 advertisement, a feminine hygiene product manufacturer poked fun at the belief, widespread throughout the country, that a woman on her period who touches a jar of pickles make the food unsafe to eat. The campaign’s slogan was, “Touch the pickle.”

In a May 2017 video, Aranya Johar, a young poet who garners millions of views on YouTube for her feminist spoken word performances, condemned misogynist remarks about menstruation, saying she dreamed of “a world where we celebrate the only blood that bleeds without violence”.

Weeks later in New Delhi, students organised a campaign entitled, “Bleed without fear” to demand that sanitary product vending machines be installed around their campus.

More recently last July, after an intense social media campaign that lasted more than a year against a so-called tax on blood (#LahuKaLagaan), India’s government reneged on a fiscal reform measure that would have seen a 12 percent tax levied on sanitary pads, categorised as luxury items.

Sinha says she is delighted about such initiatives, but notes that they have their limits. “Campaigns are great and it’s nice to have a public and open discussion that has a feminist approach,” she says. “But ultimately, I don’t think there’s any escaping a talk about the full picture, which to me falls under age-appropriate, sex-positive conversations.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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