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Liane Balaban to co-host menstruation film night to tackle taboos

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TORONTO - Aunt Flo. Bloody Mary. The red menace. That time of the month.

Whatever you want to call them, periods are still a taboo topic in North America. But in the developing world, menstruation can be so stigmatized that girls and women must use unsanitary, dangerous materials to deal with it and miss days of school and work.

"It's important for women not to feel shame about a natural biological process," said actress Liane Balaban, a star of "The Grand Seduction" and co-founder of Crankytown, an online community about periods.

"It's directly tied to their health. Especially in places like India and Africa, many women don't even know what a period is and don't have access to the proper equipment to handle their periods."

Balaban and Femme International are presenting "Menstravaganza" on Thursday at Toronto's Revue Cinema, an evening of period-themed cinema and a panel discussion. Proceeds will go to Femme International, which provides feminine hygiene education and materials in Kenya.

"Menstravaganza" will include a screening of "Menstrual Man," Amit Virmani's 2013 documentary about an Indian inventor who pursues his dream of creating low-cost sanitary pads made by and for rural Indian women — even when his community labels him a madman and pervert.

The winners of Crankyfest — an online festival for short films about periods — will also be shown for the first time. The winners were picked by an impressive set of jurors, including "Incendies" director Denis Villeneuve and "How To Train Your Dragon" star Jay Baruchel.

Crankyfest is an off-shoot of Crankytown, the multimedia website about periods created in 2011 by Balaban, actress Vanessa Matsui and costume designer Jenna Wright. The website is a "virtual village" where women of all ages can learn and share stories about menstruation.

"There's still a long way to go before a period is a completely acceptable topic for storytelling, for films, for dinner conversation," said Balaban.

"I want people to not feel embarrassed about periods. I want girls to feel empowered when they get their period. I'd like that shame to dissipate, and I think it's important that we continue this conversation about the status of women in society."

"Menstravaganza" helps mark the inaugural Menstrual Hygiene Day, a global day to raise awareness about the challenges many women and girls face during menstruation and to promote feminine hygiene education.

According to UNICEF, one in three girls in South Asia know nothing about their periods prior to getting them, while 48 per cent of girls in Iran and 10 per cent of girls in India believe menstruation is a disease. In Bangladesh, women and girls missing work and school while menstruating causes an estimated loss of $22 million due to health costs and absenteeism.

"It's really becoming a public health issue because girls don't understand what's happening to their bodies and they're not handling it in an appropriate way, which causes some definite problems," said Sabrina Rubli, co-founder of Femme International.

Femme International's Feminine Health Management program leads girls through a series of interactive workshops on female anatomy, reproductive health, hygiene and menstrual management. Kits are distributed to help girls manage their periods, including a menstrual cup that can be re-used for up to 10 years.

Rubli said the workshops create a safe space for girls to ask questions about their bodies, which is crucial to their confidence.

"I think people don't realize how significant the relationship is between menstrual education or helping menstrual management and girls' confidence," she said.

"When you empower a girl to manage her own body, she's staying in school more, she's feeling more confident and she's more able to succeed in her community."

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