Changing The World, One Sanitary Pad At A Time
March 25, 2014

Changing The World, One Sanitary Pad At A Time

Women in First World countries take easy access to sanitary products like pads and tampons for granted. They are on the shelves of every store, available in vending machines in bathrooms, and come in a huge variety of shapes, sizes and capabilities.

For women in developing countries, however, this is not true. In India, for example, a 2011 AC Nielsen survey found that only 12 percent of Indian women use sanitary pads. BBC reports that one man, a school dropout from southern India, is trying to change that with a simple machine that women can use to make their own, or start a small business for themselves.

Arunachalam Muruganantham’s mission started with his own wife, Shanthi, when they were newlyweds in 1998. From the details I’m about to give you, it’s pretty evident that reproductive education is sadly lacking in these countries as well. Muruganantham discovered his wife using “nasty” rags instead of sanitary pads. “I will be honest,” says Muruganantham. “I would not even use it to clean my scooter.”

Despite her protests that purchasing sanitary pads meant that she wouldn’t have money for milk or household goods, Muruganantham went to town to purchase one. The 0.5 ounce cotton pad cost him 4 rupees (around 0.07 cents USD), while the components of it only cost 10 paise, one-tenth of a rupee. As many of us have said when discovering the cost vs. price of an item, Muruganantham decided he could make them cheaper himself.

Here’s another of those “gosh we need education moments.” Muruganantham created a sanitary napkin out of cotton and gave it to his wife, demanding immediate feedback. This is the moment when the young man FIRST learned that menstruation was a monthly event. “I can’t wait a month for each feedback, it’ll take two decades!”

Here is where his troubles started, finding more volunteers to help. After asking around, he learned that only one in ten of the women in local villages used sanitary pads. In rural areas, the percentage is lower. To his horror, and mine, he found that women used old rags, sand, sawdust, leaves and ash. Those who did use rags were embarrassed to dry them outside, so the sun never disinfected them. In India, 70 percent of reproductive diseases are caused by poor menstrual hygiene.

Muruganantham had a bit of trouble finding volunteers to test his product. His sisters refused, so he settled on the idea of female students at the local medical college. “But how can a workshop worker approach a medical college girl?” Muruganantham says. “Not even college boys can go near these girls!” Even though he convinced 20 students to try his product, he couldn’t trust the results.. When he came to collect their feedback sheets, he found three of the girls filing in all the reports.

Here’s where the story takes a strange turn. Muruganantham created a “uterus” from a football bladder and filled it with goat’s blood. He got the blood from his local butcher and mixed in an additive to keep it from clotting too quickly that he got from a friend at a blood bank. The smell, however, he had no cure for.

He wore the bladder while walking, riding his bicycle and running. It pumped out blood constantly to test the absorption rates of his pad. His neighbors thought he had a sexual disease, his wife left him, even his widowed mother moved out. People crossed the road to avoid him. “I had become a pervert,” he says. At the same time, his wife got fed up – and left. “So you see God’s sense of [humor],” he says in the documentary Menstrual Man by Amit Virmani. “I’d started the research for my wife and after 18 months she left me!”

But he wasn’t done with risky maneuvers. He decided to study used pads. In a highly suspicious and superstitious community, this was difficult. He settled on the idea of supplying the pads to medical students then collecting them after use. At this point, his village revolted and he had to leave to avoid being “healed” by the local soothsayer.

He didn’t give up, though. He traded domestic work for help from a local professor to contact the big manufacturing companies. He pretended to be a textile mill owner to find out what the “mystery” component was—turns out, it is cellulose from the bark of a tree. At this point, we are two years and three months into his search for an affordable sanitary pad.

The machine necessary to break down the cellulose was prohibitively expensive, so he designed his own, which took another four-and-a-half years. The final result: one machine, similar to a kitchen grinder to break down the cellulose into a fluffy material; a second machine that packs the fluffy material into cakes; and a third that disinfects the pads with UV light after they are wrapped in non-woven cotton cloth. The whole process can be learned in just under an hour.

The technology is user friendly, with simple, skeletal machines that are easily maintained. Muruganantham wanted to not only create the pads, but to create jobs for rural women like his mother and wife. “We are creating a new market, we are paving the way for them,” he says.

He showed his initial creation to the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). Unbeknownst to him, they entered his machine in a competition for a national innovation award. His invention came in first place out of 943 entries. He received his award by Pratibha Patil, then the president of India.

“It was instant glory, media flashing in my face, everything” he says. “The irony is, after five-and-a-half years I get a call on my mobile – the voice huskily says: Remember me?” Remember his wife, Shanthi? After she returned, his mother also returned and eventually his village welcomed him back.

You would think this would lead to fame and fortune, but that isn’t what Muruganantham was interested in. “Imagine, I got patent rights to the only machine in the world to make low-cost sanitary napkins – a hot-cake product,” he says. “Anyone with an MBA would immediately accumulate the maximum money. But I did not want to. Why? Because from childhood I know no human being died because of poverty – everything happens because of ignorance.”

In 18 months, he built 250 machines. He took these out to the poorest and most underdeveloped states in Northern India – the so-called BIMARU or “sick” states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. In these regions, women often half to walk miles to fetch water every day, which they can’t do when they are menstruating.

Broaching this subject with rural women was really difficult. “To speak to rural women, we need permission from the husband or father,” he says. “We can only talk to them through a blanket.” He had to overcome the myths and fears surrounding the use of sanitary pads as well. Women believed that they would go blind, or never get married. Village by village, however, he brought them around.

So far, he has 1,200 machines in 23 states. In each case, women produce the pads, then sell them directly to other women. This way, they can avoid embarrassment, get needed information on use, and get a needed product.

Most of his clients are NGO’s and women’s self-help groups. They buy his manual machines for about 75,000 rupees (1,230 USD). Each machine converts approximately 3,000 women to using sanitary pads, and employs 10 women who produce an average of 200-250 pads a day. These sell for an average of about 2.5 rupees (.004 USD). There is no brand, each group of women choose the name for their business and their product.

“My aim was to create one million jobs for poor women – but why not 10 million jobs worldwide?” he asks. He is expanding to 106 countries across the globe, including Kenya, Nigeria, Mauritius, the Philippines, and Bangladesh.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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