From the Oscars to the Nurse’s Office: Fighting for Menstrual Equity in Our Own Backyards

It was an exclamation that resonated around the world: “I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar!” Video of PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE. director Rayka Zehtabchi and producer Melissa Burton accepting the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short quickly went viral on social media—spotlighting how persistent taboos about menstruation remain.

Period. follows women and girls in rural India through a time of quiet rebellion. Together, they confront the challenges associated with not having access to affordable sanitary products head-on—by launching their own pad-making enterprise. The Oscar-winning film sheds light on the ways in which women and girls in developing nations are directly impacted by menstrual stigma and barriers to reproductive health care access and education, and the activism that provided a foundation for the film’s story was made possible, in part, by the support of women and girls a world away in Los Angeles, in the Oakwood School’s Girls Learn International chapter.

But menstrual equity isn’t just a fight happening somewhere else. Many girls across the U.S. also struggle with a lack of access to pads and tampons, and their futures hang in the balance. 

Nearly one in five girls in the U.S. have left school early or missed the day entirely because they did not have access to menstrual products. Girls across the country, from Tennesse to New York City to California, still rely on the school nurse’s supply of pads and tampons during their periods, but school districts today have limited to no funding streams in place to guarantee such access to their own students. 

As documented in Sally’s forthcoming book, How Girls Achieve, girls spend a majority of their time in educational institutions—but administrations aren’t providing them with the menstrual products they need to equitably participate in the classroom. Even young women at Duke University, arguably one of the best institutions in the world, cannot access menstrual products in every bathroom on campus.

Period. also spotlights the other side to this issue: Persistent period stigma prevents women and girls around the world from claiming their right to menstrual equity. Many of the girls in the film struggle to even say the word “period” out loud, and adult men and women alike who came of age in such silence about female bodies cannot offer them much guidance on what a period is or what menstruation means.

Because periods are so often accompanied by feelings of shame, embarrassment and disgust, many girls are miseducated or misinformed when it comes to their own bodies—perpetuating menstrual silence and preventing menstrual equity.

These gaps in access and information inevitably disproportionately affect low-income women and girls. In an economic landscape where a box of 36 tampons cost around $7, and the federal minimum wage is $7.25, it’s easy to see how pads and tampons can quickly turn from a necessity to a luxury. Many schoolgirls on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where the per capita income is $9,150, come from households which simply cannot afford menstrual products. Instead, they are forced to skip school for up to a week when they menstruate.

In the wake of Period.‘s historic win at the Oscars, we must remember not only to show our support for women worldwide in this fight, but to look closely in our own backyards for opportunities to shift menstrual policies and smash period stigma.

This is a global feminist fight—and it’s one we should all take to heart and take back home.

About and

Mabelle Zhang is a student at Duke University studying Public Policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy.
Sally Nuamah is an assistant professor at the Sanford School of public policy and author of the forthcoming book How Girls Achieve. Find her on Twitter @sally_nuamah.