Earning an Oscar by Destigmatizing Periods Around the World

Winning an Oscar at 16 by empowering women worldwide

Posted by Lila Sugerman on May 3, 2021

Growing up abroad, I have always struggled with being a third culture kid. I have never been a part of either the culture of my parents or the place I grew up. The feeling of being an outsider is one that has followed me throughout my life, a natural result of living in four different countries, six different houses, and attending three different schools before the age of 10. When middle school came around, I struggled with that same feeling of outsiderness, I sat alone, feeling directionless. Rather than shifting my identity to fit the norms of those around me, I realized that there was a way to incorporate different facets of myself and found new opportunities and communities where I would not feel so out of place.

That’s how I arrived in Room 205b, the meeting place for The Pad Project, a club focused on ending the menstruation taboo. I was enamored by the strong, powerful women who spoke so passionately and unabashed about women’s issues. Though I hadn't had my period, I was fascinated. The stigma was foreign to me, although many girls, both in the US and abroad, are repeatedly robbed of educational opportunities solely for having their periods and lacking access to feminine hygiene products. After learning about the taboo and really deep-diving into global issues dealing with lack of access to sanitary products, I was committed to making a change. I frequently, and unapologetically got up in front of the whole school to talk about my period. Led by older students, I fundraised to purchase and install pad machines—manual machines that create biodegradable, locally sourced, and affordable pads for underserved communities. Not only do they provide affordable pads but they also create micro-economies, by providing steady income to women in the area who are compelled to work on the machine.

Once successful at the local level, we wanted to shine a broader light on the gender inequality that surfaced when a girl had her period. Eventually, we decided that the best way to raise awareness was to produce and distribute a short film. We crowd-sourced online for over $100,000 to cover the production costs. When we sent the pad machine to Kathikhera, India, we filmed the entire process to create an informative film about the silent revolution that takes place as the machine becomes more well known in the community. As the project shifted and grew, so did I. I had started as a young, withdrawn 12-year-old, and had become a confident 16-year-old activist who was wholly concerned about making active and long-lasting change.

We hoped to reach a few hundred like-minded activists, but after a year of speaking to audiences of thousands, lecturing on college campuses, speaking on film festival panels, and countless dinners talking about menstruation (not the favorite topic of my dad and brother), I sat breathless awaiting the words,

“And the Oscar goes to...”

What happened next defied all expectations as the subject of my small group meetings echoed around the world. In 2019, the film I co-produced alongside fellow students and our faculty sponsor, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short and has been viewed by millions. Room 205b became my home, the Pad Project girls became family, my deepest pride comes from igniting the conversation, and from the community of strong powerful women that the film and our project have united. In the process, I’ve built my own community where I am heard, where I can make a change, where I can inspire as well as be inspired. The Pad Project has forever changed my understanding of a community - it can be as big as an entire global movement, or as small as room 205b.