Oscar-Winning Documentary Lifts Stigma Around Menstruation in Indian Village

The seven women busily making and packing sanitary napkins in a small manufacturing unit in Kathikhera village had never heard that word while growing up. That is no surprise: menstruation is a taboo subject in village homes. 

That is why when the venture was launched over two years ago, several women quit after being taunted by villagers for doing “dirty work.” Those who persevered did not dare acknowledge what they were doing. 

“We used to tell everyone we are making diapers. When people came to buy them we were very embarrassed to admit that we are actually making pads,” says 22-year-old Rakhi Tanwar. “I did not even tell my father and brother about the work I was doing.” 

The venture was born in a village home after a crowd funding initiative by a student group in the United States helped purchase a machine to make affordable sanitary napkins. The group also funded a documentary that was set in the village. Made by Iranian-American filmmaker Rayka Zehtabchi, it bagged the Oscar in the short documentary category this year. 

In this small conservative community, getting the unit going was a struggle until the arrival of the film crew and the making of the movie gradually revolutionized attitudes toward menstruation. The film chronicles the impact of the cultural stigma that surrounds the subject: an estimated 20 per cent adolescent girls drop out of school after puberty and menstrual hygiene poses a challenge due to lack of access to sanitary products. 

Sneha, the protagonist of the documentary, testifies to the silence that surrounds the subject: her mother never told her about menstruation. She recalls how she was ridiculed for her work. “Sometime I came home and almost wept at the way people treated me. I was often tempted to leave. People looked at me with such contempt,” says the village girl who had never imagined her work would one day make her walk down the red carpet in Los Angeles.

There has been a dramatic change since those early days. “Those who did not want to hear about this subject or talk to us now converse about it more openly to us and to each other,” she says. “It is treated as a normal topic. This is a huge opportunity. This is what we wanted, that it should not be considered a “dirty” subject.” 

The women who were once turned away from village homes when they went to explain about sanitary products now get a willing ear. Sanitary pads, which in India, are usually discreetly kept under a shelf, are openly displayed in the Kathikhera village shop and even men turn up to buy them for their wives. Mothers say they will discuss the topic with young daughters. 

“I never shared anything with my friends also,” says Rakhi laughing shyly. “But these foreigners who came to make the movie have removed the shame we used to feel.”

The quiet social revolution taking place in Kathikhera has been made possible due to the efforts of a social entrepreneur in South India who devised a machine to make low-cost sanitary napkins after he discovers his wife uses rags.

​Besides menstrual hygiene, there have been other gains from the project: financial independence and a new-found determination to achieve goals among the women involved in the Kathikhera project. They use only their first name because they say they want to have their own identity. Sneha aspires to become a police officer, although she says women’s issues will always be a part of her mission. Rakhi, who wants to be a teacher, is using the $35 salary a month from her work at the factory to fund her postgraduate studies. 

The unit is providing the first ever avenue of employment in a village where women were confined to housework. 

The road has not been easy for women like Sushma, a mother of two who lives in an extended family. It was never supportive of her work and her husband insisted she must do all the housework despite the job she took on. But the recognition that came to the village after the Oscar award have changed all that. “Now my family allows me come to work early. My sisters-in-law willingly do my share of the housework,” says Sushma, who is determined to carry on with her job.

Officials and village elders have become more open to discussing women’s issues with Action India, the charity that helped set up the venture. “When we used to hold meetings to create awareness about menstrual hygiene, they used to say that we are spoiling their women,” recalls Suman, a social worker with the group that focuses on reproductive health issues. She says they were accused of promoting the venture to make profits while burdening households with more expenses. “Now that atmosphere has changed. They want to join hands with us. They ask us about our problems.” 

As a quiet village that had never heard of the world’s biggest film awards basks in the stardust that has fallen on it since the Oscar win, the hope is that the documentary’s bigger message will resonate in other parts of rural India. The winds of change are blowing. Action India has already set up one more pad making unit in a neighboring village with the aim of transforming lives for more young women.

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