Myths that periods had the power to sink ships and destroy crops date back thousands of years. Menstruation meant bad news for everyone from the Ancient Greeks and Romans to writers of sacred texts, including the Bible and the Quran. A new 75-minute film aims to show how much — and how little — has changed since then.
Pandora’s Box: Lifting the Lid on Menstruation, screened at the 2020 Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Jan. 16. It is the first full-length documentary about period poverty — the lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, handwashing facilities, and/or waste management.
Shot in the UK, Canada, the US, India, Kenya, and Uganda, Pandora’s Box connects the dots between period poverty around the world. The film stresses that achieving menstrual equity does not end with providing access to products, it must remove barriers to education and information that stop people who menstruate from living full lives, too.
Produced, edited, shot, and directed entirely by women, Pandora’s Box started as menstrual advocate Carinne Chambers-Saini’s passion project in 2017. Chambers-Saini is the CEO and co-founder of Diva International, the company behind the popular DivaCup. After 25 years in the menstrual equity space, Chambers-Saini approached filmmaker Rebecca Snow to direct the film.
“In terms of the times we live in, there is no reason not to be hiring female crew and female producers,” Snow, whose work includes notable BBC documentaries, told Global Citizen. “A lot of people who we were talking about these issues with, we wanted them to feel like they're in a safe place with people who have that same shared experience of menstruation.”
Everyday heroes, politicians, and leading period activists are the stars of Pandora’s Box. Jennifer-Weiss Wolf, the founder of Period Equity, the organization dedicated to ending the tampon tax in the US, and musician Madame Gandhi, who ran the London Marathon while bleeding freely, both make appearances.
By shining the spotlight on highly personal stories, the film makes the urgency of ending period poverty impossible to overlook.
One account comes from Christine Khamasi, a Kenya-based ambassador for the organization Days for Girls. Khamasi bravely opens up on screen about being forced to trade sex for pads growing up because she could afford to buy them.
We visit many parts of the world in our film, including #Kenya. Although Kenya hasn't taxed #menstrual hygiene products since 2004, and has been putting pads in schools since 2011, thousands of low-income families still struggle to afford products. #menstrualequitypic.twitter.com/UdtA4jPy1o— Pandora's Box Film (@pandorasbxfilm) January 29, 2020
In one of the film’s most vulnerable scenes, Topeka K. Sam, founder and executive director of the organization Ladies of Hope Ministries, describes the humiliation of “dumpster diving” for the least soiled used underwear while incarcerated in federal prison.
Being issued one pair of underwear daily with inadequate access to menstrual products makes managing menstruation difficult.
Under the US’ First Step Act, passed in 2018, federal prisons must guarantee free menstrual products to people who menstruate, but Sam said that she had to show male officers her used pads before she could request more.
“A lot of people think that period poverty is more of an issue in developing nations, and they don't realize that this is happening here in the US and Canada, and it’s really prevalent,” Chambers-Saini told Global Citizen.
A Plan International Canada report released in 2019 suggested that 1 in 3 Canadian women under 25 had struggled to afford period products. In the US, 25 million women who are living below the poverty line are at risk of living with consistent access to period products.
Pandora’s Box also challenges the misconception that menstruation is just a women’s issue. Trans model and activist Kenny Jones talks candidly about the period pain that he suffered while transitioning at a young age.
Read More: Period Poverty: Everything You Need to Know
“I would love to see this film being shown in boys’ and girls’ schools because I think it’s such a huge, important part of normalizing it, and getting boys in on the movement and non-menstruaters as well,” Snow said.
While exposing the grim reality of period poverty, Pandora’s Box still sends an encouraging message. The conversations and laws around menstruation are changing, even if we still have a way to go.
Kenya is one example of how, despite progress, the country still needs to be held accountable to affect actual change.
Kenya committed to providing free period products in schools in 2018, but the government continues to struggle to make them available as they quickly run out. Hellen Atteno Odour, a 15-year-old girl from rural Kenya featured in the film, stopped attending school when she started menstruating, and she has not returned.
Across the US, 32 states have introduced measures to eliminate the tampon tax, but only eight states have been successful. Many states still tax period products as luxury items, while items ranging from gun club memberships to marshmallows are tax-free.
As Pandora’s Box continues to make the rounds in the film festival circuit, Chambers-Saini and Snow want people to leave theaters ready to take the first step to end period poverty — talking about it.
“My hope is that when people see the film, they feel angry, they feel shocked,” Chambers-Saini said.
At screenings so far, audiences who were surprised to learn about the prevalence of the issue immediately wanted to find out what to do to help, according to Chambers-Saini.
“It’s only going to change if we all get involved at our community level,” she said.