March 7, 2018

The Pad Project: Working Across Borders to Close Gender Gaps

“What do you mean we need to raise $45,000? That’s impossible!”

Sophie, an Oakwood senior, recalls her reaction to learning how much money she and other members of Oakwood’s Girls Learn International club would need to raise in order to realize their vision. They hoped to raise the funds needed to install a sanitary napkin machine in Hapur, a village outside of Delhi, India, and create a documentary about its effect on the local population. The machine would produce low cost pads for the local townswomen and girls. But the amount needed was a bit daunting. “When we first saw the price tag, we had no idea we could raise that much money,” Sophie continues. “We had done bake sales and raised about $300 to buy pads and give them to the downtown women’s shelter. This was on a much larger scale than any of us were ready for, and we were a little flabbergasted.”

Stills captured from The Pad Project's documentary film Period. End of Sentence.

Three years later, they have done much more than raise $45,000. Twelve students, their parents, English teacher Melissa Berton, and Garrett Schiff, screenwriter, alumni parent, and himself an Oakwood alum ’85—with the support of Phu Tranchi, Director of Experiential Learning, and Sarah Culberson, Director of Outreach—have produced a 25-minute documentary that is on its way to the United Nations and the film festival circuit, raised over $150,000 dollars, and helped change the lives of generations of women and girls in rural India through their efforts, now a registered nonprofit officially called The Pad Project.

The journey all started six years ago during a session at the UN when Berton learned about the plight of schoolgirls in developing countries who are forced to drop out of school after their periods start. The problem is many-fold, as the Oakwood students learned over the course of their efforts, but one of the main factors is lack of access to affordable sanitary napkins. Instead, girls and women use rags, an ineffective and unsanitary method which leaves them vulnerable to infection. There is, however, a practical solution to this particular problem.

Arunachalam Muruganantham, an entrepreneur and engineer from Southern India, invented a machine that could manufacture sanitary napkins on a small scale, using cellulose from local flora. The machine is made in Muruganantham’s factory, and then installed and operated by locals to produce a highly effective and hygienic napkin that costs about 3 rupees each, far less than commercially produced pads. (You can learn more about Muruganantham and his machine in this New York Times profile.) While the pads they produce are inexpensive, the machines themselves are not, so villages need help funding and facilitating the installation.

Stills captured from The Pad Project's documentary film show Muruganantham (left) and a woman's hands putting together one of the pads (right).

Berton came away from her trip to the UN inspired to work with the students in the GLI chapter at Oakwood to raise the money needed to install a pad machine in a village in India, as well as supply the raw material needed for one year’s production, a combined cost of about $10,000. Once they started talking about the project, Berton and the students hit on the idea of producing a documentary about the project to spread awareness, which added an additional $35,000 to their goal.

I always say, if anybody needs help making a Kickstarter, I really do feel qualified now. There’s such a business about it.

Helen Yenser '13

First, they needed to figure out how to raise the funds. They turned to one of the pillars of the so-called “sharing economy,” Kickstarter. Setting up the fundraising page was a complex endeavor. “The process of getting a Kickstarter approved is a lot more difficult than we imagined,” Avery Siegel ’17, elaborates. “You have to fill out a lot of questions and they send it back to you with revisions until they finally approve it. From there we made a very accurate budget, which showed where every single dollar was going. We learned a lot from it, for sure: how to do budgets, how to do marketing, how to reach out to people.”

A still captured from the Oakwood GLI Pad Project Kickstarter

The students sent the Pad Project Kickstarter to everyone they, and their parents, knew. They discovered both the power, and the false hope, of networking. While some donations started coming in, others fizzled. “It was kind of scary,” Helen explains. “A lot of people would say, ‘Oh, I’ll talk to this person, they’ll donate a hundred thousand dollars.’ So, in the beginning you think, we’re going to raise millions! And then you get to the day, and it turns out nobody’s connections are as strong as they thought they were.”

Most importantly, the students realized that in order to reach beyond their personal network, they needed to be picked by Kickstarter as one of their Projects We Love. “There are people that go on Kickstarter and donate to things that they like,” Helen continues. “They spend their day just looking at the different causes, giving five or ten dollars. If you’re one of Kickstarter’s Projects We Love, then you’ll get a lot more traffic and those small donations add up.”

The Kickstarter was fully funded within days of going live. The girls were on their way to seeing The Pad Project become a reality.

Sometimes when you think of girls who live in India or another developing country, you can think that they’re so different. It’s easy to forget that we do have things in common. Girl culture all over the world is so powerful. It creates such an amazing community, and I think that’s really important.

Mason, 9th Grade

As the Oakwood students began working with the students and women in India, they would Skype occasionally-one time at 1:00 in the morning due to the time difference. In these video calls, though they were a world apart in culture and language, they found themselves bonding over pop culture similarities. A mention of Justin Bieber would set off a round of giggles.

But the one thing that was still difficult to discuss was the reason they were all there in the first place: menstruation. The students soon learned that their counterparts in India did not simply face an economic barrier to using proper sanitary products. They faced an entrenched social taboo and lack of education on the topic.

“We thought that the major issue was that girls were not going to school because of their periods,” says Ruby Schiff ’17. “In reality, the major issue is a lack of education and the stigma around menstruation. I remember on one of our calls I was showing them what a tampon looks like. I put it in a cup of water and showed them how it expanded. They were all freaking out.” Menstruation is such a taboo topic in India that men often do not know that it exists until they are married. Girls endure this cultural stigma from the onset of puberty, which reinforces negative self-perception at an age when their self-esteems are particularly vulnerable.

Members of Oakwood's chapter of GLI from the 2016-17 school year
The Hapur, India chapter of GLI

As the project progressed, the students saw that its impact was far more immediate than they had expected. The machine, it turned out, didn’t just produce inexpensive sanitary napkins. It also created a cottage industry for the women that produced, packaged, branded, and sold them. “The machine creates a micro economy in the village,” Mason, an Oakwood freshman, explains. “It gives women an opportunity to work. When they feel like they can make their own money, it empowers them. I think that that’s what the pad machine really brought the women. It gave them a chance to understand their worth beyond the men in their lives.”

I love that we could suggest an idea, and it happens. None of us have been to India. We haven’t done any of the actual film making, but we’re the ones that want to tell the story. We’re the motivation behind it. It was a story that we felt was important. It needed to be told.

Maggie, 8th grade

The documentary that the students helped produce evolved over the course of the project. It went from being completely student-led to involving a team of filmmakers and producers. Directed by recent USC graduate Rayka Zehtabchi and edited by her partner Sam Davis, it is being co-produced by Guneet Monga, cofounder of Sikhya Entertainment, who has been instrumental in coordinating efforts on the ground in India. While at the outset the story was focused more on the schoolgirls and the impact that menstruation had on their lives, as Rayka started filming in India it became clear that the real story was about the women tasked with running the pad machine in the village. “Rayka ended up being there as the machine was delivered,” Sophie elaborates. “The women were unpacking it and learning how to use it. The story became about that process rather than ‘how are the pads immediately changing everyone’s lives?’ We all knew that it was going to be a ton of work, but we never really understood how much planning it was going to take for them to get the business off the ground.”

Period. End of Sentence. will be shown later this month, on March 14, 2018, as Oakwood’s Girls Learn International group hosts a parallel event at the 62nd Annual Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations.

The students were aware from the beginning that they did not want to be perceived as “white saviors,” especially in a country still dealing with the entrenched social, economic, and political ramifications of its years as a British colony. They wanted to remain in the background, providing the means and the inspiration for change, and letting the women be their own agents of progress, discovering how best to incorporate the machine, and its benefits and challenges, in their society. “From the beginning, we’ve been conscious of the fact that this could all sound very white savior,” Sophie comments. “We really didn’t want that. We made sure that everyone was aware that we were working with the women in India, not helping them out. The vocabulary we used was very precise.” For that reason, the students never accompanied Rayka on her trips to Hapur, though a small group are finally making the journey this month to reconnect with the women and students they got to know through Skype and the film footage.

For those not going to India, they must make do with seeing the results of their actions in the raw footage Rayka has sent back as she films. Though it cannot compare with the multi-sensory experience that is India, and the welcome they would surely receive from the women whose lives they’ve touched from afar, it has nonetheless been an emotional process. “The first time we saw any of the film,” Avery recalls, “We were sitting in Melissa’s classroom on the floor during lunch period. It was not in English and there was no translation. We had absolutely no idea what they were saying, but we were all sobbing.”

For me, wherever I end up going to school, I’d love to bring The Pad Project there, because I think the bigger The Pad Project can be the better.

Carly, 12th Grade

Perhaps most powerful for the Oakwood students has been seeing how their ideas could take flight and create an exponential amount of change. Due to the students’ efforts, Credit Suisse has come on board to donate $150,000 to Action India, the organization in India that facilitated the installation of the pad machine in Hapur. The documentary is just beginning its journey, being shown at the UN in March, then hoping to have its international premiere at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto. As it makes its way around the film festival circuit it will continue to raise awareness and drive people to the fundraising website that the students have set up. The Pad Project is also partnering with This is L, an all-natural tampon and pad company that has invested in several pad machines, but needs help facilitating their installation in villages in India.

Four members of the Oakwood GLI (Claire, Avery, Ruby, and Emily) with their parents and Melissa Berton (4th from the left) and Sarah Culberson (far right)
Ruby, Claire, and Avery inside the UN

The freshmen who are now part of The Pad Project bring new ideas and energy to its next chapter while the graduating seniors are hoping to spread awareness about its mission at their colleges and universities. What was once taboo, even in American schools, is now becoming an important part of the discussion about women’s health and prosperity. “When I was a senior in high school and I spoke at Town Meeting,” Helen recalls, “the audience’s shocked reaction made me feel like I was the first person to ever talk about menstruation in a public gathering. Now it’s a much less taboo subject in our society. At the time, there was no information about it, but now there are numerous organizations raising money for similar projects.”

The students involved in the project, now a registered nonprofit officially called The Pad Project, past and presently enrolled at Oakwood, are:

Helen Yenser ’13, Graduate Student, USC
Natalie Geismar ’15, Senior, Washington University
Daviana Angelo ’17, Freshman, NYU
Ruby Schiff ’17, Freshman, Kenyon College
Avery Siegel ’17, Freshman, Tulane University
Claire Sliney ’17, Freshman, University of Pennsylvania
Sophie, 12th Grade
Carly, 12th Grade
Charlotte, 12th Grade
Mason, 9th Grade
Lila, 9th Grade
Maggie, 8th Grade