“A period should end a sentence — not a girl’s education.”
Awards shows have increasingly become homes for high-profile political statements, and last night’s Oscars ceremony was no different. When Berton and director Rayka Zehtabchi took to the stage to claim their prize, they contributed to that trend by speaking out against period stigmas — in part, by opening with a joke.
“I’m not crying because I’m on my period, or anything,” Zehtabchi said when she got to the microphone, earning laughs. “I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar!”
[Related: The Story Exchange on Women in Hollywood]
The documentary was no laughing matter, however. It examined how period stigmas negatively impact young girls’ lives, focusing on its effects in a rural village in India to make a global point — and banging a drum that women social entrepreneurs have been beating for years.
Celeste Mergens, the founder of Days for Girls, is one such leader. Her nonprofit provides reusable sanitary pads and economic opportunities to women in poor communities internationally. Founded in 2008, it is one of a number of organizations that seeks to destigmatize menstruation and provide access to sanitary products so that girls can continue to attend school when they have their periods.
While speaking with The Story Exchange, Mergens recalled a formative trip to Kenya that sparked her startup story. While there, she inquired about feminine hygiene practices at an orphanage she had been working with at the time. “It turned out that they would sit on a piece of cardboard for days,” she told us. “I knew we needed to change that.”
Filipa Carreira also started up to address this problem. Her nonprofit, Wamina, provides girls and women with low-cost, reusable sanitary pads, and teaches menstrual health and hygiene. She does her good work in Mozambique, another area where girls are negatively impacted by period stigmas.
The work is direly needed. In India, 23 percent of girls drop out of school because they lack access to toilets and sanitary pads. In rural Nepal, girls are sent to live in small, isolated sheds while menstruating. And in Ethiopia, a study found that 56 percent of girls were absent from school specifically because they did not have a sanitary pad.
The effects are both practical and emotional. Martha Silcott is another female founder who wants to get rid of “the negative feelings [felt by menstruating] women up and down the country and around the world” during their menstrual cycles. Her business, Fab Little Bag, seeks to eliminate the taboo surrounding period discussions, in addition to providing an eco-friendly disposal option for tampons and pads.
The more women continue to fight the good fight — be it through entrepreneurship, Academy Award-winning documentaries or anything in between — the more period stigmas are eroded. And the numbers show that young girls need that taboo eradicated in order to thrive.