Rayka Zehtabchi, director of the documentary short film "Period. End of Sentence." (2019), expressed “I'm not crying because I'm on my period or anything. I can't believe a film on menstruation won an Oscar." Even though attention is being brought to topics such as menstruation and women’s health in the mainstream media, much work remains to be done.
The documentary, which is a 25-minute exploration of the lives’ of rural women in Harpur, Uttar Pradesh, reveals the widespread ignorance surrounding menstruation in India. The women are unable to answer a simple question about the biological reasons for menstruation and many are unaware about the existence of disposable pads. Amongst school children, the boys refer to periods as an ‘illness’ and the girls are extremely embarrassed to talk about menstruation in front of their peers.
Menstruation is the most taboo subject in my country, says Arunachalam Muruganantham – a social entrepreneur from Tamil Nadu. He won the Padma Shri award in 2016 for innovating a low-cost sanitary pad making machine. A film based on his life, "Pad Man" (2018), showcases the societal backlash he received for his experiments. He inspired a host of new start-ups and companies to create biodegradable sanitary napkins using waste banana, corn or bamboo fibre.
Despite the potential to commercialise the technology, Arunachalam Muruganantham provides them free of cost to women SHG’s (Self-Help Groups). In Harpur, the women are given a demonstration of the machine — soon, they begin to manufacture sanitary napkins aptly named ‘Fly Pads.’ The women describe how their lives’ have changed since being employed at the workshop, in terms of financial independence and the respect they gain from society.
In order to establish long-term, valuable change in women’s hygiene, it is important to focus on education. According to a 2014 report “Spot On!” by Dasra, 23 million girls drop out of school annually due to period poverty (lack of access to sanitary products due to financial constraints) or unavailability of proper sanitation facilities at schools. Of the girls who do not drop out, many miss five days of school every month.
It is important to ensure that girls stay in school and the government should prioritise handing out free sanitary napkins to them — on the same lines as the Mid-Day Meal Scheme. Moreover, menstrual health and hygiene education should be provided to both girls and boys in order to normalise and familiarise them towards women’s issues.
Another major concern in women’s health is the lack of sanitation facilities, mainly in rural regions. In the 2017 film "Toilet: Ek Prem Katha," a woman files for divorce because her in-laws refuse to build a toilet on their property. The movie emphasises the hardships faced by rural women due to lack of privacy and security.
The government’s commitment to create an open defecation-free (ODF) India under the Swachh Bharat Mission is laudable. A major aspect of the mission is building toilets. Progress has certainly been made, as toilet coverage has increased from 39% in 2014 to 98% in 2019. Even so, many public toilets remain out of service because of the lack of water supply or regular cleaning. It is necessary to allow the community, especially women, into local decision-making roles to solve grassroots-level problems.
Education through entertainment, such as films or documentaries, is one of the ways to inculcate long-term behavioural changes in India. While being engaging and fun, they also leave the audience thinking about the real life issues of women. It is commendable that movies like these are getting the recognition and the praise they deserve because they keep the discussions about menstruation alive.