Arunachalam Muruganantham - Meet the Menstrual Man of India
The inventor of an award winning low cost sanitary napkin making machine, Arunachalam Muruganantham's road to success was a long and hard one. Read his story on his attempts to make menstrual hygiene accessible to thousands of rural Indian women.
When you look at a picture of Arunachalam Muruganantham, you can definitely see determination in his eyes. No wonder the success born out of this determination has made him worthy enough to be featured on TIME magazine’s list of 100 most influential people of the world for year 2014.
Popularly known as “Menstrual Man,” this social entrepreneur from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, has revolutionized the rural Indian woman’s menstrual health and well-being by inventing a machine that makes cost effective sanitary napkins at grass root levels.
While this may not sound path breaking to many of us urban women, Muruganantham’s invention is nothing less than a godsend to thousands of girls and women in villages who suffer from terrible hygiene conditions during periods due to limited access to sanitary pads (for various reasons) and the stigma attached to the condition, even in the twenty-first century. In addition, his invention has provided employment opportunities to many rural women self-help groups and has given women access to better hygiene.
Arunachalam Muruganantham’s road to success has been a long and hard one. He dropped out of school at the age of 14 to work and support his family after the untimely demise of his father. In 1998, just a few days into marriage, he found his new bride, Shanthi, hiding away pieces of rags. When questioned, she replied that she used them during her menstrual cycle, like millions of rural Indian women. The condition of the cloth, according to Muruganantham, was so appalling that he wouldn’t even have cleaned his scooter with it. When requested to use sanitary pads, Shanthi pointed out that if she did, the costs incurred would eat into their monthly milk budget.
To impress his wife, Muruganantham went to buy a packet of sanitary napkins from a chemist, and was hastily handed a fully wrapped parcel, as if it were something illegal. He examined a sanitary pad and realised that for a penny’s worth of raw material used, the cost of the pad was almost four times.
He then decided to make a sanitary pad from scratch with some cotton wool himself and asked his wife to test it. It was only when she put it away for later did he realise that periods were a monthly affair.
Slowly, the thought of making affordable napkins began to take solid shape in Muruganantam’s head. He needed used sanitary pads to study factors like the material used, absorption, etc. Realising that he couldn’t depend on his wife alone for regular supply of used sanitary pad samples, he approached his own sisters and women volunteers in his community to help him. Almost all of them refused, feeling embarrassed. What shocked him was that less than 10% of women used sanitary pads at all and most still used rags. Some even used barks of trees, mud, even ash to stem the flow. All this only made his resolve to make low cost pads stronger.
He then asked women from a medical college to help him with samples or try out his handiwork. They did, but not for long. What started as an idea to ease his wife’s menstrual troubles had now become an obsession. Muruganantham flooded himself with his research for finding what material went in the napkins that made them retain their shape through absorption. His family thought he was a madman.
When his obsession rose to a fever pitch, he built himself a “uterus” made of the bladder of a football filled with goat’s blood obtained from a butcher. He attached this to a pipe and let it flow into a sanitary pad which he wore on himself. This was soon discovered in the village as the stench his body gave out was unbearable. He was labelled as a pervert with a sexual disease and ostracized. In a matter of time, his wife sent him a divorce notice and his mother cut off ties with him. Undeterred, he took this as an opportunity to spend more time on his research.
His breakthrough moment dawned when a woman volunteer who tried his sanitary pads said she thought she was wearing a branded pad.
Muruganantham finalised the design of a simple machine which very slowly gained popularity among women self-help groups and NGOs.
The turning point for Muruganantham came in 2006, when he visited IIT Chennai to showcase his idea and receive feedback. IIT registered his invention for the National Innovation Foundation’s Grassroots Technological Innovations Award which he won and received from the hands of then President, Pratibha Patil.
Arunachalam Muruganatham’s aim was not only to make affordable sanitary pads, but also to empower and create employment opportunities for underprivileged rural women like his widowed mother.
His machine costs around Rs. 75000/- as opposed to the industrial grade one costing more Rs. 3.5 crore and as he puts it, is “simple and can fit into a living room.”
Now marketed under Jayashree Industries, a non-government startup located in Tamil Nadu, Muruganantham sells this machine to many women self-help groups and women entrepreneurs. His machine has reached most states of India and has its presence in 17 other developing countries of the world.
The working of the machine involves few simple steps. First, defibering the core material, which is wood pulp. Then, forming the core of the napkin, followed by finishing the cover. The last steps involve UV sterilization of the pads and then packing them. All these steps can be learnt within an hour.
Muruganantham is clear he does not want to tie up with any large companies to mass produce these napkins and that he strictly wants to encourage underprivileged women to produce the napkins and sell them to girls and women in villages. His dream is to ensure every woman in India uses a sanitary pad and at least a billion people are employed with the help of his invention.
On a happy note, Muruganantham has been reunited with his wife and mother, who now help him with this noble cause.
Countless of Indian girls and women today still suffer due to poor healthcare in villages. The taboo associated with menstruation in our country has a crippling effect on young girls once they hit puberty. Instead of accepting it as a normal part of a fertile, female body, it is almost treated like a disease, where women are disallowed to lead a normal life.
In most villages, sanitary napkins are considered unhealthy and rags are used during periods. Women do not even dry the rags out in the sun out of shame; hence they are never really disinfected. These account for 70% of vaginal and urinary tract infections, leading to ill maternal health as well.
Boys and men are discouraged to learn about women’s bodies in a healthy way.
Our country needs more men like Arunachalam Muruganantham who are able to think beyond blind beliefs and make a difference.