"I heard it's a disease. It's mostly about girls, right? "
Thus began "The progress cycle," fresh winner of the 2019 Oscar for best short documentary. This is one of the answers from a group of young people from Hapur (near New Delhi) when they were posed the question "what is the 'menstrual cycle?” "I think it's a disease. It's mostly about young women ... "
The stunning documentary by Rayka Zehtabchi tells the story of the small great revolution of a group of women who began to produce and sell cheap and biodegradable sanitary napkins in a community where even talking about menstruation was absolutely forbidden, and often constituted a social stigma.
The project in the district of Hapur, in the State of Uttar Pradesh, is an initiative of Action India, an ActionAid partner organization in India, also supported through long-distance adoption programs.
In this village, just 60km from New Delhi, women have never had the opportunity to use sanitary napkins. This situation greatly increases the risk of health problems and negatively affects the scholastic drop-out rates for young women. What seems like a small change, that is the installation in the village of a machine to produce low-cost and biodegradable sanitary napkins, is actually a highly significant revolution.
The course of events.
A few months ago, a group of women began producing and selling thousands of sanitary napkins to their own community. The name they chose was "Fly.” Their mission of the group was not merely to sell sanitary napkins, but to free women from the stigma and shame they feel because of their menstrual cycle and, at the same time, reach financial independence.
"There is a reason why we chose the name 'Fly," says Suman, one of the village women. "We have set up this machine for women. Now we want women to get up and literally take flight.”
With courage, they begin to share their product with other women and girls in their community. They explain how sanitary napkins are used, they talk about the advantages they can bring to their lives and, above all, openly and without hesitation, discuss a topic, until now, considered taboo.
Real change in the communities is brought about by these conversations. “When patriarchy is in place, a certain amount of time must pass before we can talk freely about something purely feminine," says one of the Hapur women. "It takes time even to talk about it freely between us women, but that's where we want to go."
In a memorable scene of the documentary, a group of women and girls are asked if they would like to buy a pack of sanitary napkins. After remaining silent for several seconds, a brave first girl raises her hand and asks for a package. After a few moments, the whole room comes alive, filled with the screaming voices of all the other women, who ask enthusiastically to buy them for themselves as well.
The message of "The progress cycle" is very important. Much too often in this village, but also in communities around the world, the menstrual cycle has had a devastating effect on the lives of women and girls.
This physiological and natural function often leads young women to miss school days, or to abandon it altogether, increasing the risk of early marriages and pregnancies at a young age. And throughout their lives, women can be forced to face shame each month, separated from the rest of their communities.
At ActionAid, we know that these false beliefs are difficult to overcome. But the goal of much of our work with communities around the world is precisely breaking down many taboos.