It is no secret that unfettered access to education—a basic human right—not only drastically increases one’s chances of leading a successful and financially stable life, but increases the well-being of one’s country as well. This fact is especially pertinent to the millions of girls all over the world who are unable to access education safely and consistently.
It has been shown that if they receive seven full years of education, on average, girls will marry four years later and have 2.2 fewer children. By attending just one additional year of secondary school, it is possible for their lifetime wages to increase by up to 20 percent, thus increasing their countries’ GDPs by billions of dollars.
The sad reality is that many girls’ abilities to access education is hindered for various different reasons. For too many girls, that reason is puberty.
In developing countries throughout the world—including Afghanistan, Uganda and India—between 25 and 57 percent of adolescent girls miss school or drop out all together because of their periods. As a result of a lack of education and overwhelming stigma and taboo surrounding the topic of menstruation, women and girls around the world also do not have access to safe or hygienic period products. In India, many girls do not even know what menstruation is.
The Oakwood chapter of Girls Learn International (GLI)—a project of the Feminist Majority Foundation that focuses on educating and empowering girls throughout the world—has become increasingly invested in this issue. They knew that they did not wish to simply raise money and send period products to girls in India—rather, they wanted to address the issue at its core and figure out sustainable ways to empower women and girls so that this issue can be eliminated entirely.
Influenced by Arunachalam Muruganantham, who invented a machine that manufactures sanitary pads out of natural, locally-sourced materials at the low cost of just five cents per unit, the GLI girls decided they wanted to set up a pad machine in villages in India to not only provide them with vital period products, but to also give employment opportunities to these women—thus was born The Pad Project. They are currently setting up a pad machine in the village of Kathikhera, located in the Hapur District.
Through a serendipitous series of events, GLI Oakwood has collaborated with Rayka Zehtabchi—a 23 year-old Iranian-American filmmaker who graduated from USC with a degree in film production in 2016—who also felt compelled to raise awareness of this issue and to help create a solution. Though she has not been in the industry for very long, she has already won various awards for her short films and established a clear vision for herself as a filmmaker and the impact she hopes to make on the world. Now, she is working on a documentary about The Pad Project with the help of the fundraising and awareness efforts of the GLI girls.
Ms. spoke with Zehtabchi to discuss her role as both an activist and filmmaker, how The Pad Project came to be and how she envisions wrapping the project—and helping women obtain the necessary independence to live out the lives they want, regardless of their periods.
How did you first hear of The Pad Project and how did you know this was something you needed to become involved with?
I originally did not know about The Pad Project. I didn’t even know about the issue. I was actually in line about to board a plane to Scotland when I got a call from a father of one of the Oakwood GLI students. He essentially told me about the issue and said: “This is what is going on all over the world, this is what the program is, this is what Feminist Majority Foundation is. We’re trying to make a documentary about the issue. Are you interested?” And I remember I was in line boarding the plane and I just started crying. I’m a very emotional person, and I know that usually when I have an emotional response to something—especially if I don’t even have that much information about it—it is important for me to consider and work on. So I thought about it for about a week while I was in Scotland and everything was just telling me that making this film was the right thing to do.
I’ve noticed that many of your other films are very powerful as well. Did you have similar integral moments like the one you just described when you decided to work on your other films? Would you say you have a particular vision for yourself as a filmmaker that you are reminded of in moments like that?
Absolutely. I had that feeling with the first project that I directed as well. Again, it was an emotional response. I really believe in following your gut. Especially as a filmmaker, you have to make a million decisions per day and some of those decisions are: what is the project I’m going to be working on for the next six months to however many years? So you definitely need to have a gut response to whatever it is you’re going to be working on. It’s something that I follow and that I’ve learned to follow and that has taught me about the kinds of films that I am interested in making. I am just very interested in doing things for a cause. I want to make sure that as a filmmaker, I’m being proactive and productive in our society and that whatever I’m making is not just solely for entertainment, but is actually educating an audience and doing something for the world.
So would you say that your relationship between your activism and your filmmaking is something that evolved pretty naturally throughout your career?
Definitely. And I feel it is more of a responsibility. I know that might sound a little cliché, but really, it drives every single decision that I’ve made so far as a filmmaker. Especially as someone who makes documentaries, everything that I’m thinking about is: How truthful are we being? How accurate are we being? Are we sensationalizing this? And all of these things are very important. I just want to make sure that whatever we’re doing is honest and productive.
What was the most shocking or surprising thing that you learned throughout the filmmaking process?
I don’t want to sound selfish but I think it really taught me a lot about myself. I grew up sort of thinking I was always mature and worldly in a lot of ways. And I think I realized when I went to India—when I was exposed to this whole issue—that I really don’t know anything about the world. I know very little and it’s not enough just to talk about it. You have to see it. You have to experience it in order to really tolerate it and in order to really understand people’s struggles. Like I said earlier, I had no idea this was even an issue. I had no idea that women didn’t know what menstruation was or what was happening to their bodies. I had no idea that the rest of the world wasn’t using pads and tampons just like I was growing up. And that’s because I never had to think about that. It’s never even a thought that crossed my mind because I never had to think twice about whether or not I was going to make it through a month without getting a pad because for me, it was just as convenient as getting toilet paper. So that simple fact is pretty remarkable and telling of how immature and ignorant I was in a lot of ways.
What is your favorite part about working with the Oakwood GLI students?
I think what’s so admirable about the Oakwood students and the path that they were laying before we even started talking about a documentary is that they are so concerned with making sure that they’re not just putting a band-aid over this issue. They don’t just want to donate money and buy the girls a pad machine. They want to go there. They want to speak with the women. They want to understand what the situation is from a first hand experience. They want to install this machine and make sure that we’re giving the power entirely to them to create these pads and to become empowered and independent. They didn’t want to just hand over a package of pads and hope that that will last for the month. So I just think that’s so admirable. Some of these girls are 15 and 16 years old and I just think they are eons ahead of me and many other people I know in terms of maturity and tolerance and compassion.
How do you envision wrapping the rest of the project?
I’m about a year out of USC film school, so I haven’t been directing for all that long, but the past two projects I have directed have been narrative short films, so I’ve sort of come into this learning narrative—it’s a lot more structured and a lot more organized so coming into documentary for the first time was kind of a shock because you realize how little control you really have. It can be both liberating and shocking at the same time. So for me going into it, I think we all had this sense that the film should be surrounded around this village of young women in India, specifically in the village where we’re installing a pad machine. And going there, it became more and more clear to me that really the specific thing I want to focus on is how this pad machine is affecting these women’s lives—the ripple effects. And that encompasses everything from taboo surrounding the topic of menstruation, to education, to educating people on feminine hygiene and the importance of it and how we can lower the risk of so many health conditions by maintaining feminine hygiene, to general empowerment for the women. Going there, I realized there’s a really big issue with women feeling like they have no voice and have no say in things. That this machine could actually grant them the opportunity to wake up every day and work towards a cause that they care about and that affects them personally is pretty incredible. Those are all the themes I want to focus on in this documentary. Whether that ends up being in one character or another, that’s always hard to say with documentary. You can do your best to prep and focus on the things you want to focus on, but when you go there—as I learned last time—things always tend to naturally take a slightly different course, and I’m prepared for that.
Currently we’re seeking $47,000. Not just for the documentary, but half of that would go towards the remaining production of the documentary and post-production, as well as the machine itself and making sure that it’s fully functional.
What advice would you give to fellow young filmmakers who might feel overwhelmed or intimated in terms of establishing their presence in the film world?
I think the real word of advice is work really really damn hard. I think there are always going to be obstacles. There are always going to be people that think you’re either “too young,” “too diverse,” or that your vision isn’t fresh enough. There’s always going to be some sort of negative side to it and I think really, you just have to listen to your gut and again, work really damn hard. That’s really all it is. You gotta want it and you gotta work for it. I think if there’s a will, there’s a way. You figure it out.