This article, featured in the Magazine section of BBC News, focuses on Arunachalam Muruganantham, known mainly for his work on producing cheap sanitary pads for poor women in India. Made (relatively) famous by the documentary film Menstrual Man (2013), his story is one of tenacity in the face of ridicule and ostracism, as despite the clear health benefits involved in providing sanitary pads to women, the issue was a taboo topic.
Indeed, his story is remarkable as an example of innovation and invention – while inventors are noted for their ingenuity in terms of the creative solution, and perserverance in the ability to continually try new ideas to achieve the final product, what they had to overcome was often simply the technical difficulty of research and development. Muruganantham, on top of all that, also had to deal with the fact that the very issue was one that, despite being objectively important in terms of women’s health, was also a great source of embarrassment and shame. Over the course of his research, his wife and even his own mother left him; while most inventors are at most seen as eccentrics wasting their time and money, he was branded a pervert and even accused of being possessed by evil spirits.
This taboo is, as the article points out, only one aspect of a larger discrimination against women in the traditional and conservative elements of Indian society. Most prominent in the Delhi bus gang-rape case in late 2012, gender discrimination is deeply entrenched in conservative Indian societal views (and indeed in those of many traditional views of societies around the world) that strongly favour a patriarchal world-view. Tellingly, Muruganantham himself only realised that women’s periods were monthly after attempting to gather data for his research, showing how women’s issues, even those directly affecting health, are invisible to men – a problem of not just apathy but also ignorance.
The Indian sanitary pad revolutionary
By Vibeke Venema
BBC World Service
A school dropout from a poor family in southern India has revolutionised menstrual health for rural women in developing countries by inventing a simple machine they can use to make cheap sanitary pads.
Arunachalam Muruganantham’s invention came at great personal cost – he nearly lost his family, his money and his place in society. But he kept his sense of humour.
“It all started with my wife,” he says. In 1998 he was newly married and his world revolved around his wife, Shanthi, and his widowed mother. One day he saw Shanthi was hiding something from him. He was shocked to discover what it was – rags, “nasty cloths” which she used during menstruation.
“I will be honest,” says Muruganantham. “I would not even use it to clean my scooter.” When he asked her why she didn’t use sanitary pads, she pointed out that if she bought them for the women in the family, she wouldn’t be able to afford to buy milk or run the household.
Wanting to impress his young wife, Muruganantham went into town to buy her a sanitary pad. It was handed to him hurriedly, as if it were contraband. He weighed it in his hand and wondered why 10g (less than 0.5oz) of cotton, which at the time cost 10 paise (£0.001), should sell for 4 rupees (£0.04) – 40 times the price. He decided he could make them cheaper himself.
He fashioned a sanitary pad out of cotton and gave it to Shanthi, demanding immediate feedback. She said he’d have to wait for some time – only then did he realise that periods were monthly. “I can’t wait a month for each feedback, it’ll take two decades!” He needed more volunteers.
When Muruganantham looked into it further, he discovered that hardly any women in the surrounding villages used sanitary pads – fewer than one in 10. His findings were echoed by a 2011 survey by AC Nielsen, commissioned by the Indian government, which found that only 12% of women across India use sanitary pads.
Muruganantham says that in rural areas, the take-up is far less than that. He was shocked to learn that women don’t just use old rags, but other unhygienic substances such as sand, sawdust, leaves and even ash.
Women who do use cloths are often too embarrassed to dry them in the sun, which means they don’t get disinfected. Approximately 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene – it can also affect maternal mortality.