Period. Exclamation Point!
Okay, full nepotism disclosure here. When I first heard about the documentary film Period. End of Sentence, I was psyched to see menstruation in the movie mainstream — this was a documentary short promoted all over Netflix. But only after I watched did I learn how many people close to me made it possible for this film to come to life. Anissa Banchik and I went to junior high and high school together; she’s been the best kind of cool since the seventh grade. And Melissa Berton is my cousin. Yes, that Melissa, who stood on stage with an Oscar in hand and announced in the most profound, pulled-together moment, “A period should end a sentence, not an education.” Together with a band of students and parents from Oakwood School, Melissa and Anissa supported The Pad Project in the most profound way, by bringing it to life across the globe and to screens everywhere. I am so proud to know them (and share DNA with one of them!).
I recently had the opportunity to speak with both Anissa (AS) and Melissa (MB) about their award-winning documentary and their inspiring involvement with The Pad Project.
CN: Can you share a snapshot of your backgrounds and how you each became involved with The Pad Project?
AS: I am the mother of three teenagers: two sons, 15 and 17, and a 19-year old daughter. I have been a Licensed Clinical Social Worker for over 20 years, working with children, teens and adults in both community centers and private practice. I also worked as an educational therapist both privately and in school settings. As my children got older, my practice changed so I could be with them after their school day ended, and so I could be more involved in their schools. Roughly five years ago, my daughter, Avery, joined a school club called Girls Learn International led by her teacher, Melissa Berton. Avery was chosen four years ago to be a teen representative at the United Nations Conference on the Status of Women and Children. I jumped at the opportunity to be a parent chaperone. From that point on, I have worked with my daughter and her club to continue their exploration of issues impacting women and girls around the world.
MB: The most joyous part of being a teacher is that your students will lead you down paths you never expected to travel. In March of 2013, I journeyed with six of my high school students to serve as official delegates to the 57th Annual Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations. There we learned about the plight of girls in developing countries who, once they first menstruate, drop out of school because they have no access to hygienic feminine supplies, and about Muruganantham, the Indian inventor of the sanitary pad-making machine.
We decided immediately to raise awareness about this simple solution to this fundamental human rights issue by producing a documentary film that would record how the installation of a pad machine in a rural village in India could improve lives for women and girls. We also knew the most authentic and powerful advocates for such a film would be high school girls themselves.
An English teacher at The Oakwood School in Los Angeles, I am the faculty sponsor for Girls Learn International. GLI is a nationwide organization under the auspices of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which is dedicated to giving high school students a voice in the global movement for equal access to education for all genders.
In March 2018 I traveled to India with two high school students and one alumni nine months after the installation of the pad machine to meet with the women in Kathikera. They hosted a beautiful meal for us and we screened the film for them. Our day together was one of the best days of my life.
CN: You were involved in this endeavor with your kids and students. How was that at the start? Did they drive your interest here or did you drive theirs?
AS: As a parent it’s sometimes hard to contain your excitement and impulse to take over when your child becomes interested in a project that inspires you. My daughter absolutely inspired me to get involved and, as we got deeper into The Pad Project, I became just as invested as my daughter, especially as we formed the non-profit branch of the project. One of the hardest things I found along the way is finding the balance between stepping in too much or not enough. As the project grew, there were areas where the girls needed more support, like with executing the Kickstarter campaign and finding a director for their documentary.
MB: We definitely drove each other’s passions and interests! Whenever I felt slightly defeated, or that this undertaking might be too monumental, the courage and enthusiasm of the students spurred me on.
CN: If you had heard about these inequities in the 80s when you were in high school, would you have jumped into this cause the way your kids have done?
AS: If it hadn’t been for this extraordinary group of girls, there never would have been a Pad Project or Period. End of Sentence. I remember at the very beginning of Avery’s involvement, she and her friends made a documentary called A Girl’s Rite which interviewed moms and daughters about getting their period. They had all come to the realization that the one thing that most women and girls share, no matter who they are or where they in the world, is they get their period. This “aha” moment came after they had been skyping with a sister school in Sierra Leon. Being able to develop a relationship with teens half way around the world through video chat sessions, allowed them to expand their knowledge of the world and think about teens just like them growing up in a different way and with different opportunities. I think this personal experience connected them in a way that would have been more difficult to achieve in the 80s. I’d like to think I would have been involved if given the opportunity when I was a teen, after all I did march on Washington DC against nuclear weapons with a group from school, but this was definitely not a topic that was ever explored in my schooling.
MB: Even as the teacher spearheading this movement, I had to deal with my own shyness and shame around the topic of menstruation. Students would tell me that they were going to make announcements about The Pad Project at an all-school-assembly, and my first instinct was to jump in and prevent them because I didn’t want them to be teased or embarrassed. I had to come to the realization that this kind of shame about our own bodies was the very reason we were making this film and forming our non-profit.
CN: All three of us grew up in Southern California, lucky enough to simply be annoyed by the inconveniences of having a period – but periods never limited our lives or our futures. How has your work with The Pad Project – not to mention your work on the film – changed the way you teach or parent around the topic?
AS: As a mother of both boys and a girl, periods have been an open topic in our house since my boys were 10 and 12. Before the Pad Project and PEOS I never really thought about educating my sons about menstruation. It just always seemed to be something between my daughter and me, but working on this project has opened up a much wider conversation for our entire family and also our community. Two years ago, Miles, my middle son, starting wearing the kickstarter campaign t-shirt “A period should end a sentence, not a girl’s education” to school. (He goes to a different school than where my daughter went.) Lots of kids laughed at first, but he kept wearing it. Here we are two years later and some of those kids are now asking to buy one.
CN: This film is so impactful because it illustrates how solving one problem (not having sanitary pads) could solve another (gender-based social and financial inequities). Was this your goal from the start?
AS: The girls were very clear when they were raising money for a pad machine that the machine represented much more than just pads. The idea of giving the tools to develop a micro economy for the women in the village was a tremendous motivator. Supporting the growth and empowerment of women by giving them the platform and the opportunity to create their own business was an ultimate goal. Starting the conversation and dismantling the stigma of menstruation was another.
CN: What’s next?
AS: We had no idea that the film would win an Oscar, but the exposure about the issues surrounding menstrual equality has been tremendous. It’s just the beginning for The Pad Project. There is so much work ahead of us.
MB: More Pad Machines worldwide!
Want more info about the film and The Pad Project? Check out this article from The Times of India