Scripps College alumna Helen Yenser ’17 is headed to the 2019 Academy Awards. Yenser is an executive producer of an Oscar-nominated documentary short, Period. End of Sentence., that chronicles an effort to fight the stigmas attached to menstruation in the village of Kathikhera, India. These stigmas not only affected how women are regarded but also limit their futures; menstrual periods are considered “dirty blood” and associated with shame, embarrassment, and illness. Because girls do not have easy access to menstrual pads or tampons, they often become targets for sexual abuse and harassment once they enter puberty, and many skip school while they are menstruating, eventually dropping out because they fall too far behind. “There’s this giant elephant in the room,” says the film’s director, Rayka Zehtabchi, in a recent New Yorker article. “Mothers are not talking about it to their daughters, wives are not talking to their husbands, so no one is really very knowledgeable or educated about what this thing is that happens to women’s bodies every month.”
Yenser became aware of the issue in 2013, when she was a senior at Oakwood School in Los Angeles. She and members of her class took a trip the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York, where they learned about the struggles of women and girls in places around the world where there are menstruation stigmas. With her mother, Melissa Berton, Yenser and her classmates—fellow members of the Oakwood Chapter of Girls Learn International—began working on the Pad Project, a nonprofit that brings machines that easily and cheaply produce biodegradable menstrual pads to villages throughout India. Not only are girls able to wear the pads to school, reducing absences, but the women who help manufacture and sell the pads earn an income. “One woman is using her earnings to fund her master’s degree to become a college professor, while another woman is using the money to become a doctor,” explains Yenser.
The Pad Project continued to flourish while Yenser was a student at Scripps. While pursuing her degree in English, she was also working on a Kickstarter campaign for a documentary about the project, eventually raising over $40,000. She also built a Pad Project website and consulted with activists Kathy Spillar and Ashley Steimer-King from Girls Learn International and Gouri Choudury from Action India to expand the initiative. After years of hard work and dedication, documentary filming finally began in 2016. The producers partnered with Action India to make sure they understood what residents wanted to see implemented in their village. Yenser says this part of the process was challenging because the language barrier made it difficult to establish relationships with those they filmed. However, with the help of grassroots activists from Action India, the director and her director of photography ended up shooting over 40 hours of footage for the 25-minute short.
Period. End of Sentence. shows how the menstrual pad machines installed in Kathikhera have affected the lives of women and girls who live there as well as opened up a larger dialogue around menstruation and puberty. The pads are sold under the brand name Fly, and the Kathikhera “Fly Team” sells around 800 pads a month, even offering door-to-door delivery for those who are too embarrassed to buy them in stores. The documentary’s “star,” a 23-year-old woman named Sneha who helps manufacture the pads, originally told her father she was working at a diaper factory. As the documentary progresses, she realizes that if she can’t speak about menstruation, her village won’t be able to make progress toward ending stigmatization. Eventually she tells her father the truth, and he is supportive.
“Before filming, a lot of women in the village didn’t talk about their periods at all and didn’t know exactly what was happening to them throughout menstruation,” says Yenser. However, when the film’s producers returned to Kathikhera six months later to screen the film for the entrepreneurs and grassroots activists who helped implement the project, they encountered women who were less afraid to talk about their periods.
Yenser maintains that it’s important to understand that stigmas associated with menstruation exist everywhere. For example, when the government provided free pads and tampons to low-income schools in New York City, girls’ attendance went up exponentially. “Menstruation taboos are universal, and it is important to strive to end this hushed tone when discussing periods,” she says. She hopes that the documentary’s wide distribution on Netflix will encourage viewers all over the world—women and men—to reflect on their own perceptions about menstruation and feel more comfortable talking about them.
Yenser is currently pursuing an MFA at the University of Southern California and hopes to establish a career in television writing. She plans to continue using her writing skills to advance causes she cares about. “It’s gratifying to pursue art forms that have an impact,” she says, reflecting on her experience with Period. End of Sentence. She is excited to be attending the Academy Awards, remarking that even if the film doesn’t win, she is happy to see the awareness it is helping to create. “I hope this project will be a part of my life forever,” she says proudly.