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Episode 028: Shattering Menstrual Stigma Through Film with Melissa Berton

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Melissa Berton is the Academy Award-winning producer of PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE., a documentary film about menstrual stigma which won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short in 2019. She is an LA-based teacher and writer, as well as the Founder & Executive Director of The Pad Project: a nonprofit (and Days for Girls partner) dedicated to the principle that “a period should end a sentence, not a girl’s education.”

In this episode, Melissa dives into the story behind PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE., what inspired her to create the film, and how the power of creativity, hard work and Kismet (good fortune) made it all come together. She also talks about the evolution of The Pad Project, its global impact and the role her students have played – and continue to play – in fighting period poverty around the world.

Highlights:

  • Melissa’s journey from high school teacher to Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker
  • The origins, making and impact of PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE
  • How the film’s Oscar success provided enough financial security to seed its corresponding nonprofit initiative, The Pad Project, which now operates in four different countries
  • What inspired Melissa’s passion for empowering women and girls
  • The role that Melissa’s high school students played in bringing the film and The Pad Project to life, and where they are today

Connect:

Website: www.thepadproject.org

Social media: @thepadproject

Bio:

Melissa Berton is a Los Angeles-based teacher, writer and the Academy Award-winning producer for Best Documentary Short (2019): PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE. She is also the Founder & Executive Director of The Pad Project, a non- profit organization dedicated to the principle that “a period should end a sentence, not a girl’s education.” In recognition of her human rights work to promote menstrual equity, Berton received the 2019 Eleanor Roosevelt Global Women’s Rights Award.

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Transcript:

Jessica Williams 0:00
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Welcome to the Days for Girls Podcast, a show about breaking barriers for women and girls around the world. I’m your host, Jessica Williams, Chief Communications Officer at Days for Girls International. At Days for Girls, we believe in a world where periods are never a problem. We are on a mission to shatter the stigma and limitations associated with menstruation by increasing access to sustainable period products and menstrual health education for all people with periods.

Today’s guest is an Academy Award-winning producer for Best Documentary Short in 2019, for PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE. Melissa Berton is a Los Angeles-based teacher and writer. She is the Founder & Executive Director of The Pad Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the principle that “a period should end a sentence, not a girl’s education.” In recognition of her human rights work to promote menstrual equity, Berton received the 2019 Eleanor Roosevelt Global Women’s Rights Award. I love this conversation, especially since The Pad Project has been a supporter of Days for Girls. So I’m so excited to share this with you. Now let’s go on to the show. Melissa, welcome to the Days for Girls Podcast. It is so fantastic to have you here today.

Melissa Berton 1:59
Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here. I feel like it’s full circle in a way because my knowledge of what we now call “period poverty” actually began with my knowledge of the work that Days for Girls is doing. So it’s really an honor to be with you.

Jessica Williams 2:14
Oh, that’s so cool. I love it. Well, I actually knew about you before I know about Days for Girls. So that’s really…it’s a circle within a circle. I know because I remember the moment when you won the Oscar. And I was like, wait a minute, what though? Like, there’s a documentary called PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE. That’s amazing. Oh, and you guys were so excited when you got up on stage. And so it was really cool to watch that. And that’s really where I want to start as we dive into your work. Tell us that story. Like you’re an English teacher at a secondary school, and here you go winning an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. And like, was this a big surprise for you? Tell me.

Melissa Berton 3:02
Oh, my goodness, it was a huge surprise. Of course, nothing I would have ever expected. But if you had told me when I was a high school student that first of all, I’d be a high school English teacher. And that second of all, I’d win an Academy Award for a film about periods, I certainly could never have believed you in my wildest dreams. It began because I was part of an organization called Girls Learn International, which seeks to give girls equal access to boys around the world to education. And as part of that mission of Girls Learn International, I became the faculty advisor for a delegation of students to the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations in 2013. And it was there that we learned about what is now known…but we didn’t have a term then that anyone was at least saying out loud, a term called “period poverty,” which includes the lack of access to knowledge about your own reproductive system to lack of products or lack of sanitary facilities with which to manage your period.

So we learned about this issue – five high school students and I. And this is a story I tell in the foreword to the book, PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE., which was inspired by the movie. And we learned about this issue and we were ashamed by our own ignorance and sort of blown away that something as simple as a period could make a girl miss school, have a girl drop out of school, and we thought we need to somehow raise awareness about this issue. And then at the same time, we learned about an inventor named Morgan Anthem who had made a pad manufacturing machine that could employ women locally and use locally-sourced materials to make sanitary pads. And we – through Girls Learn International again – we learned of an organization called Action India that was interested in getting one of these machines for their community. So our goal was twofold: one, to raise funds to get a machine to our partner community in Katikara, a rural village outside of Delhi, and to document the process on film. So that was a big, a big chunk of story. But that how it started.

Jessica Williams 5:48
Okay, so I’m gonna help you unpack that a little bit, because there’s a lot there right? Now – you’re fine, you’re fine, that’s my job as the interviewer! So um, okay, so you’re an English teacher, and you’re teaching in secondary school? So is that like high school? Is that… what that does that mean?

Melissa Berton 6:06
High School. So I teach 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grade – all the grades of high school actually, over the years in English.

Jessica Williams 6:15
Okay, cool. And so the women that you’re interacting with, the young girls that you’re interacting with at your school, they’re all of that age where they’re, you know, adolescent age. And I’m interested in their experience of learning about what we now call “period poverty.” Was this, like, what was their reaction to this work?

Melissa Berton 6:39
They were so upset, you know. I think there’s something about when you’re at the age where you’re, the onset of menstruation is happening, you are getting your period for the first time. You’re sort of, you know, initiated into this group of women, whatever that means. Though, we know that that some people get their periods as as early as you know, nine years old, even eight years old. But still, for most people, it’s middle school or high school. And you don’t want to hear or feel like somebody your own age is being denied her education because of something that is natural, something that is powerful, and certainly something that she has no control over. So I think for my students, there was a sense of injustice and a sense of wanting to join together to raise awareness about this. I think that in high school, students are at an age where they’re figuring out who they are intellectually, what might they want to be? Do they want to go to college? If so, what field do they want to pursue, and the whole world is sort of open to you in an exciting way in terms of how you want to explore your ambition, and so to feel that you’re going to be held back because of your period is something that just felt unacceptable to all of us.

Mm hmm. Yeah, I can imagine that. And had you ever done any documentary filmmaking or anything before?

No, no. The thing that I love about being an English teacher is that literature and stories, like stories told in film, resonate with people over time. And that’s how we develop empathy. And that’s how we learn, and that’s the best part about being a teacher. And most teachers will tell you that they are lifetime learners, and that whether what you teach and learn about is literature, or math, or biology or science, it’s all an ongoing process, and your students will open your eyes to blind spots that you may have had. And so I knew the power of storytelling, I’m an English teacher. And I have taught some screen writing, but documentary filmmaking was certainly something I had never done or thought to do. But I knew and my students knew – and perhaps this has something to do with our location, you know, near Hollywood, the school where we teach is in North Hollywood – we knew the power of film. And we felt like not enough people knew about this issue and film was the best way we could all think of to tell this story of discrimination against women on account of their menstrual cycles. How can we tell people this story? And we thought maybe we could create a small educational film that would live on the platform for Girls Learn iIternational and, and help tell the story. We had no idea, you know, that this film sort of like the little Engine That Could would just grow and gather followers and strength. But once we hit the film festival circuit, we began to see what the reaction was and continues to be.

Jessica Williams 10:54
Yeah, that’s amazing. Okay, so for those people who haven’t seen the film, can you give us like an overview of what happens in the film?

Melissa Berton 11:02
Certainly. So the film PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE. is a 26 minute documentary set in the rural village of Katikara in Northern India, and a pad manufacturing machine comes to the village and women band together to create a pad manufacturing enterprise. And in so doing, the stigma around menstruation in their village decreases. By the end of the film, men engage in making pads on the machine, women develop agency. For me and for many people who see the film, one of the most touching moments is when a young woman says that because of the wages she earned from the pad machine. she could buy her brother a suit. She says usually, it’s the brother that buys the gift for the sister. But because I was making some money today, I could buy my brother a gift.

Jessica Williams 12:09
So when it when it was released, you know, I remember watching the Oscars that year, and I had never heard of it. And it was like, wait a minute, what? So you were you were traveling around showing it at film festivals? Is that how people were able to see it?

Melissa Berton 12:21
Yes, so the art director right at the top, she was able to submit the film to many different film festivals. And for those interested in how this process works, if your film wins what’s called a Jury Award, or there’s also another award which I’ll talk about in a minute. It’s then put in a pool with a number of other films who have won a Jury Award and that qualifies you to be considered to be shortlisted for an Oscar nomination. We were so honored to receive the Jury Award. But what was more touching, I think, was that as we began on the film festival circuit, we won what’s called the Audience Award. And that means that for the people who went to the film festivals, this was the documentary that touched them or moved them most for whatever reason. And I think that’s how we began to know the film really struck a chord which makes sense, right, because so many people menstruate or will menstruate or have menstruated in their lives. And so it makes sense that a film about this issue should should move and enrage or inspire so many.

Jessica Williams 13:44
Mm hmm. So you’re at the Oscars and it’s 2019 you’re sitting in the crowd and you’re listening, you’re waiting, tell me tell me like what happens next, like walk me through that whole experience.

Melissa Berton 13:56
I was an absolute nervous wreck. We had the opportunity to have with us – for those who have seen the film listening – Sneha, the aspiring police officer who is you know, the “star” of the film. And Suman, in whose house the pad machine lived. And also Gauri Choudhury, the head of Action India, the nonprofit organization with whom we partnered. They all traveled from Delhi to be able to be with us at the Oscar ceremony. So that in and of itself was heavy and exciting. Then all of the students who you mentioned at first, who were able to run up to the stage with me and our director. We were completely nervous and just so, you know, you hear Oh, I knew you were gonna win because you could see that you were sitting in there. In the rows right near the podium. And what they do – a little insider secret – is that we were not sitting close at all. We were like, far, far back. And the Dolby Theater has balconies. But before each different category is called to receive the award they move all nominees. So that’s why it looks like oh, you must have known, you know. But we didn’t know at all. It was a great surprise. It was wonderful.

Jessica Williams 15:38
Oh, well, I remember how excited you were. So okay, let’s pivot and talk about the Pad Project. So you actually founded the Pad Project prior to producing the documentary. Right?

Melissa Berton 15:52
Exactly. Yes, that’s correct. So all along, it was a sort of twofold plan. We created the Pad Project to house – we wanted people who were donating funds for the machine and for the making of the film to be able to receive a tax deduction. In order to do that. We needed to establish a nonprofit. And our hope, which I’m so proud and excited to say we exceeded our wildest dreams. But our hope was that well, you know, maybe we could create this little film, we could establish this nonprofit, and maybe we collect enough funds to be able to, you know, send another machine to another village. And so we were on two tracks: one, the creation of the nonprofit organization, the Pad Project, and to the creation of the documentary film.

And what actually happened in a beautiful way with lots of mistakes and drama, of course, along the way, was that thanks to that Oscar moment, on stage, we received so many emails – literally thousands. I tell people, when I talk to people, that I had to get my high school’s like IT tech guy on an emergency call with me, because it was like being pelted by you know, stones! Great stones. But one email after another, literally thousands, I couldn’t open an email before another one would come in. All of them telling me about what getting their period was, like in their community, why they wanted a pad machine, why they had to stuff their underwear with socks, what they were doing in their community to raise awareness. And donations, small donations, but so many, $5, $10 from almost every country in the world. And that was enough to really seed the Pad Project. You know, to plant the seed and give enough of a financial backing to the Pad Project that we could really become a nonprofit working like Days for Girls in the menstrual equity field. And now we’re really proud that we have nine pad machine partnerships in four different countries. Next year, we’ll have 13 pad machines in nine different countries. So it’s really just growing.

Jessica Williams 18:55
Hmm, well, it’s amazing. And we’re so appreciative of your support of Days for Girls and in the work that you’ve done to help us serve so many women around the world, you know, a lot of countries in the global south. So thank you for that. I’m gonna kind of take a step back and ask a question about your personal life. So I’d love to learn more about your upbringing and what led you to become passionate for women’s rights and equality?

Melissa Berton 19:19
Well, I grew up with three sisters. So having four women in the house – five, including my mother – definitely. After a certain point, one of us was having her period at any given time. So we definitely were pretty upfront, pretty humorous, ready to talk about it. My dad, you know, went along with things so I had the great, good fortune to be in a kind of women-positive, girl-positive, period-positive household. That said, you know, we still had code words for it, we were secretive about it, you know, just different things. Generationally, I will say that when my own daughter wanted to talk about the work of the Pad Project at an assembly at our school, I discouraged her because I just immediately flashed on, if I had ever talked about my period, or period poverty at my high school, that would have been, you know, social suicide, for sure. I couldn’t have lived that moment down. And I wanted to protect her. But she, like most teenagers, she ignored me. She went ahead and she did it. And the students were really receptive and positive, which to me, signals a sort of sea change in attitudes toward menstruation, which is really great to see. I think people asked me Oh, you know, were you such a feminist? And, um, I suppose really thinking back, that I was and that I am. But it’s not, like I said as we started this podcast, it’s this path – of creating a nonprofit for menstrual equity and getting an Oscar for a documentary about a film set in India – was certainly nothing I would have ever foreseen. Maybe being an English teacher was something I could have foreseen. But but not all of this. So I’m really delighted, and it shows how life can certainly take interesting turns.

Jessica Williams 21:39
It does. I love that about your story and how diversified you are here, where you’re like, a multi-passionate person, you know, a lot of different stuff. So I love that. And also this sense of – I’m sure you were afraid at times and nervous, but this sense of fearlessness with which you approach this work. Like I have a friend, she’s an English teacher, like yourself at a high school here in Portland, Oregon, where I live, and she created a documentary with her students about their school. You know, but the fact that you like, went out and got this on the radar of the Oscars. I mean, it’s just so cool. The hard work that you put into that. I’m gonna ask this because I know a lot of people are like, how did you get on their radar? Like, how do you get the attention of the Academy Awards when it comes to documentary filmmaking like this?

Melissa Berton 22:40
Well, there’s an Indian word, Kismet, which means luck, fortune, the exact right moment for things to happen. And as inspirational as our story is, I also know how kind of frustrating it can be because like your friend, who I’m sure has an inspirational, wonderful film that she made with her students. It’s not like you can snap your fingers and make everything happen. We were fortunate to, too. Yes, you know, there’s that old cliche about luck happens when hard work meets opportunity, or whatever, I’m kind of botching it. So we definitely had put in the work and the time, and from this idea to make a film to that moment on the Oscar stage was six years. So there was a lot of crazy and wild and unpredictable, challenging steps along the way. At the same time, we had the Kismet, the good fortune to come in contact with people who could help provide us that access.

So an example of that is Guneet Monga, who had Sikya Entertainment, which is a production company in India. She’s a wonderful filmmaker who made the film The Lunchbox, among other films, and one of our students who happened to know her was involved in The Pad Project and we were talking about, okay, we raised this money, but how are we going to shoot a film in India? We don’t have camera equipment. We don’t have a production company in India. We don’t know what we’re doing. And she said, let me see if Guneet Monga is in town. She’s got another film that she’s promoting here. She lives in Mumbai, but she’s gonna come talk to us. And Guneet Monga is a big activist and women’s rights activists. She almost immediately said, let me, I’m gonna help you, I’m going to lend, you know, my production company to help you make this film. That’s one example of one of the instances of Kismet, without which we could not have have made the film, have come this far. And there are other instances like that when maybe just the right person at just the right time sort of showed up. And it just kept going. And I can tell you other stories, we’re always going to be lost in just a moment. But things got repaired or saved. And we’re so lucky. I guess, behind all of that, I would say that we stuck to our mission – a period should end a sentence, not a girl’s education. That was kind of how we got into it. And young people, high school students mobilizing adults around them, is really how we kept the energy and the momentum going. There’s not much denying a 14 or 15 year old when she says, shouldn’t somebody my age be entitled to live out her full life? Shouldn’t she be entitled to an education? And many adults really understood that. And so that’s how we managed to keep going.

Jessica Williams 26:36
So can you tell me a little bit about the young women that were involved with the documentary? Have any of them gone on to do any work related to this?

Melissa Berton 26:46
Absolutely. I’m so proud of all of them. Proud mama! They are now staff, interns, depending on what their ages, many of them. So the women, the age range of people who are currently in The Pad Project to those who have now graduated school, range from 12 to about 26. And the ones on the older end of that spectrum do our marketing, do our beautiful Instagram for The Pad Project, do our social outreach, help with development. So all of them are involved in profound and meaningful ways. And they are the founders for The Pad Project

Jessica Williams 27:37
So cool.

Melissa Berton 27:40
It’s so cool. So gratifying, actually.

Jessica Williams 27:43
Absolutely. Before I let you go, where can people… I know you’ve got a lot going on. So there might be multiple websites and social medias, but give them to us so we can, people can follow you and stay in touch with your work.

Melissa Berton 27:54
Thanks so much. So www.thepadproject.org is the website for The Pad Project. You can find my website under my name, Melissa Burton, b, e, r, t o n. And those are two great places to go. And look out for us on Facebook, on Instagram on Twitter. And I’m so thrilled. I just want to say before I go, that those seven years ago that we were talking about, when I was learning about period poverty, Days for Girls was the first organization that I’ve heard of through Girls Learn International, that was doing work for period equity. So to me, Days for Girls is a leading light, you were the first organization that really pioneered the way for others in this field. And without Days for Girls, I don’t know if so many other organizations that are now thriving could could have taken strength and existed. So I just wanted to give that shout out to Days for Girls.

Jessica Williams 29:13
Aww, thank you. Well, we so appreciate The Pad Project and your partnership and support. And I hope all of our listeners will go and visit the work that you’re doing, look at that and also watch the documentary if they haven’t seen it. So thank you, Melissa for coming on the show. It’s been a real pleasure.

Melissa Berton 29:30
Thanks, Jessica. It’s been great.

Jessica Williams 29:33
The Days for Girls Podcast is produced by Days for Girls International. For show notes and resources mentioned in this episode, visit daysforgirls.org/podcast. If you’d like to support the work we do on the show, leave a rating or a review wherever you listen, subscribe to the show, and share our episodes on social media or with your friends. To learn more about Days for Girls and to join our global movement, please visit daysforgirls.org. Thank you for listening. See you next time.

 

Jessica Williams
Jessica Williams is Chief Communications Officer of Days for Girls International. She is also the host of The Days for Girls Podcast. Jessica holds a Bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest University in Communications and a Master’s degree in Strategic Communications from The University of Oregon. She is also an adjunct instructor for the University of Portland’s Pamplin School of Business Nonprofit MBA program.