Breaking the Taboo of Menstruation

“The strongest creature created by God in the world. Not the lion, not the elephant, not the tiger. The girl.” - Arunachalam Muruganantham in Period. End of Sentence (2018)


The birth of new life is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful parts of our existence. In the same breath, menstruation (the process that enables the creation of life) is still one of the most taboo topics in many societies. So when I heard that Period. End Of Sentence.,  a film about menstruation, had won the Oscar for “best documentary short”, I immediately downloaded the free Netflix trial to watch it – and I was so glad I did! This short film which is filled with life and raw humanity, does important work for breaking the taboo surrounding menstruation and reminds viewers of why we should all be feminists.  


Image by IMDB


This documentary film directed by Rayka Zehtabchi and created in collaboration with The Pad Project, is set in a village in Uttar Pradesh’s Hapur district, 60 km outside Delhi, India. It traverses the story of a community of Indian women who liberate themselves from the taboo of menstruation, and drive their own economic empowerment, by producing and selling sanitary pads in their community.


This is no easy feat. In an Indian society where menstruation is seen as making a woman “impure” and “dirty”, there is very little education on the topic. We see this manifest in the film as the opening scenes show interviews with young women who are too embarrassed or shy to even say the word “period” and young men who believe periods are “some kind of an illness”.


This lack of knowledge and shame surrounding such a natural process causes such harm to the lives and progress of women. In rural Indian areas where there is no access to sanitary products, or they cannot be afforded, women often have to drop out of school because there is no way of managing their period at school. A report published in 2015, stated that 23% of girls in India drop out of school when they reach puberty. In addition, these women are also not allowed to go to the temple when they are menstruating because they are believed to be “impure” and as the film says: “The elders believe that our prayers are not heard”.


Image by India West


For the women in this Indian village, this narrative started to change when they were introduced to a machine that they can use to make biodegradable, low-cost sanitary pads. This machine was invented by Arunachalam Muruganantham, who then brought it to the village and taught the women how to use it themselves. For almost all of the women, this was their first glance at autonomy and the first time they did not feel that they were restricted by their periods. They used this machine to create a business selling pads and spread the message to other women. While they were earning money, helping their community and becoming financially independent, they were also learning (and teaching others) that there is no shame in menstruation.


Although, this film and this story is set in India, this kind of experience is not far from home in South Africa. There are communities of women who live a stone’s throw away; whose lives are structured around and restricted, by their periods. This is a reality that so many women contend with and the message of this film is universal. Seeing the glowing smiles on the faces of the women at the end of the film, after realising that they can talk about their bodies, that they have so much in common; that they have options and they are able to liberate themselves – ultimately, that their womanhood should not inhibit them – reminds us why breaking the taboo is so important.


For decades, activists have been trying to end the taboos around menstruation, which are only perpetuated in the mass media. So receiving this kind of accolade, from an academy that is world renowned, and has so much sway over public opinion is a huge step in the right direction. A film about breaking the taboos surrounding menstruation winning an Oscar is so monumental because it proves that change is not only possible but is indisputably necessary as well.