How One Man Revolutionized Menstrual Hygiene for Rural Women Worldwide
Arunachalam Muruganantham’s journey to create a low-cost sanitary pad began 19 years ago, against many odds: He was a school dropout from a poor village who wanted to design a woman’s product.
But he believes that his life’s roadblocks were his assets. At least, his poverty and unfinished education certainly were.
“Being poor and uneducated, I was grounded to the real world and was able to understand the plight of rural women who have no access to hygienic resources for menstruation,” he says.
The 52-year-old social entrepreneur is the man behind an inexpensive machine that manufactures affordable sanitary pads for rural families. For many women in India, menstruation is a taboo subject. Eighty-eight percent of women don’t use sanitary pads, which can lead to reproductive diseases and high rates of maternal mortality. Additionally, 22 percent of girls drop out of school when they begin menstruating.
But Muruganantham didn’t originally set out to solve a major issue for women; he just wanted to please his new bride.
Six months into his marriage, Muruganantham noticed his wife, Shanthi, hiding something from him and was dismayed to learn they were dirty rags that she used during her menstrual cycle. “I was surprised why an educated woman like her wouldn’t use sanitary napkins,” Muruganantham says. But Shanthi knew the family budget would suffer if she were to buy pads for the four women in the family.
Muruganantham decided to impress her by buying a pack of expensive pads, which cost him more than a day’s earnings making iron grilles and gates.
Finding the cost prohibitive yet wanting to provide the women in his life with hygienic materials, he decided to take it upon himself to create cheaper pads. Having seen his father weaving sarees while growing up, Muruganantham thought crafting pads would be an easy task. “I thought it would be simple—just 10 grams of cotton wrapped in cloth,” he laughs.
It was not that simple.
Muruganantham’s first effort at creating a sanitary napkin was disastrous, and his wife rejected it right away. He wasn’t ready to give up, but he needed subjects who could test his products. He asked his two sisters to help, but they didn’t even want to discuss the subject with him.
At a nearby medical college, Muruganantham approached female students to assist him in his work. “Girls would run away when I asked them to try out and give feedback on my pads,” he says. After a lot of persuasion, a few women agreed to become test subjects.
But the problem didn’t end there.
A married man talking to women about personal issues such as menstrual hygiene was seen as infidelity in his community. Because of the controversy, Shanthi left him 18 months after he started working on manufacturing a comfortable sanitary pad for her.
“Her intention was not to leave me; she just wanted me to discontinue my work,” he says in retrospect.
He continued testing pads with the college students, but his mother discovered what he was doing and decided, along with his sisters, to also leave him. “She was so livid, she just tied her belongings in a saree and walked out,” he recounts.
Though he was left alone, his spirit was unbeaten. To fast-track his work, he decided to test the pads himself. He re-created a uterus with a deflated soccer ball filled with goat’s blood that he sourced from a local butcher, ran a tube through it to reach the pad he wore, and squeezed it every 20 minutes as he went about his daily work. “I became the man who wore a sanitary napkin,” he says with a laugh.
He soon realized how lousy his pads were when he found his clothes stained with blood. Members of his community soon drove him out of the village, thinking he suffered from a sexually transmitted disease.
It took Muruganantham more than two years to identify the right materials to use and another five years to invent the machine that could fabricate the pads.
In 2006, the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai awarded him for his innovation. After seeing his name in a local newspaper, Shanthi called him and returned home, along with his mother and sisters.
The machine Muruganantham created serves a dual purpose. It creates low-cost sanitary pads and provides jobs for rural women. One device employs 10 women and can produce up to 1,000 pads a day.
To date, more than 2,400 machines have been installed across India and 17 other countries, including Kenya, Nigeria, and Nepal.
“I want to set up 100,000 units across India so that 1 million women can get a livelihood,” Muruganantham says. He suspects it will take another two decades.
“I’m waiting for the day when every Indian woman has access to a sanitary napkin,” he says.