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Lila Sugerman works to destigmatize periods in India

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    Lila Sugerman at the Global Research Institute    Photo courtesy of Ethan Brown
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by Ethan Brown '21

Reprinted by permission of The Flat Hat.
Sugerman is the daughter of W&M alumni Andrew & Sarah Sugerman.

William & Mary’s Global Research Institute welcomed 15-year-old Lila Sugerman to Williamsburg for a sneak preview and discussion of the documentary she co-produced, “Period. End of Sentence.” The full screening was part of the Global Film Festival.

The film, which was the only Academy Award-nominated (and ultimately Academy Award-winning) documentary with an exclusively female cast, investigates how insufficient access to sanitary products in rural India often prevents young women from obtaining secondary education. The Global Research Institute’s director of programs and outreach, David Trichler, introduced Sugerman: “The goal of these lunch talks is not to go too deep, but we talk about something that’s interesting, and to bring someone that’s doing interesting things in the world, and then we have a conversation afterwards,” Trichler said.

Sugerman began working alongside her peers at Oakwood School in Los Angeles, California, to create a formal organization devoted toward the empowerment of young women in Hapur, a rural area outside of Delhi, India. Access to women’s education is limited in India, and girls face institutional restrictions and social barriers that cause many to fail to complete secondary school.

According to Sugerman, these obstacles are intensified when girls get their period because, for many Indian families, menstruation is considered a taboo topic. Sugerman also explained that for poorer Indian families, many must choose between purchasing sanitary products and essential goods, like food, due to limited financial resources.

Sugerman said that lack of access to pads often forces girls to stay home instead of going to school, which makes it increasingly difficult for them to complete their secondary education. Furthermore, Sugerman also explained that girls face intense social pressure from boys when they attempt to attend school while on their period, often suffering from taunts and shaming by their male counterparts.

According to Sugerman, she and her peers recognized that as young, privileged women in southern California, they had a unique ability to foster dialogue about periods and access to sanitary products from across the globe. Among the motivating factors for the project’s creation was how strongly Sugerman and her partners identified with the girls in India, especially due to their shared age and experiences.

“This [organization] is pretty much run by 15 girls, half are alumni, half are still in high school,” Sugerman said. “Everyone is under the age of 25, except for our teacher advisor.”

Sugerman’s organization, eventually dubbed The Pad Project, sought to aid girls in India by setting up machines that produce affordable and biodegradable sanitary pads for their communities. The Pad Project obtained nonprofit status in California two years ago, and after announcing plans to film its efforts in India, sparked media attention and rapid financial backing.

“We used Kickstarter to raise all our money … we raised $200,000 altogether,” Sugerman said. “The main way we did this was through trailers, commercials and reaching out to companies.”

The money was allocated to the establishment of pad machines in Hapur as well as to the filming of “Period. End of Sentence.,” which sought to encapsulate The Pad Project’s work in a short documentary. The documentary, which draws from over three days of footage, has been screened at twenty film festivals in the United States and India.

The film, which integrates interviews of young women in India alongside depictions of the machine’s impacts on Hapur, is available on Netflix International. Despite the project’s success and the film’s critical acclaim, Sugerman intends to tweak aspects of The Pad Project before expanding the program to other countries. Moving forward, one of her primary objectives is to be more selective with the infrastructure that the project uses, rather than blindly choosing whatever technology is most readily accessible.
“If we had looked into it more … with time, things become more innovative, and there are more options,” Sugerman said. “When we were first [starting the project], we just picked out a pad machine, and it was like, the only one there.”

Beyond an intensified selectiveness for the pad machines they send to India, Sugerman also expressed the project’s interest in fostering a stronger partnership with its Indian collaborators through sustained communication and open dialogue. Sarah Baker ’19 echoed these concerns and expressed her hope that The Pad Project’s goals would not dissipate following its recent media hype.

“I know after the Oscars and the hype dies down a little bit, and when [the project] intends to expand, I wanted to know what [their] plans were to keep this project strong and sustainable in this one community,” Baker said.

Sugerman emphasized that The Pad Project is continuing to subsidize the pad machine’s operation in India, and that her team engages in frequent Skype calls with peers in India to ensure an open line of communication.

Furthermore, the project is sponsoring travel to Los Angeles, California, so several of the women featured in the film can attend the Academy Awards Feb. 24.

“We really want to stay in contact with the communities that we work in,” Sugerman said. “That’s the biggest part of the nonprofit; we care about the communities we work in, and we really want to have communication with them.”