When Arunachalam Muruganantham realised his wife had to choose between buying family meals and buying her monthly “supplies,” he decided to tackle the global problem of the sanitary pad.
A global demand with no apparent supply triggered an amazing idea
Arunachalam Muruganantham may be a school dropout from a poor family in southern India, but he has revolutionised menstrual health for rural women in developing countries by inventing a simple machine they can use to make cheap sanitary pads. His research got very personal and led him to a powerful business model.
Arunachalam decided he could make them cheaper himself.
In a wonderful in-depth report for the BBC, Vibeke Venema begins:
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.
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.
Finding volunteers was no mean feat, so he became the man who wore a sanitary pad
Finding volunteers to test his products was no mean feat. His sisters refused, so he had the idea of approaching female students at his 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!"
He managed to convince 20 students to try out his pads – but it still didn’t quite work out. On the day he came to collect their feedback sheets he caught three of the girls industriously filling them all in. These results obviously could not be relied on. It was then that he decided to test the products on himself. "I became the man who wore a sanitary pad," he says.
Everyone thought he’d gone mad
He created a "uterus" from a football bladder by punching a couple of holes in it, and filling it with goat’s blood. A former classmate, a butcher, would ring his bicycle bell outside the house whenever he was going to kill a goat. Muruganantham would collect the blood and mix in an additive he got from another friend at a blood bank to prevent it clotting too quickly – but it didn’t stop the smell.
He walked, cycled and ran with the football bladder under his traditional clothes, constantly pumping blood out to test his sanitary pad’s absorption rates. Everyone thought he’d gone mad.
The user-friendly machines are kept deliberately simple and skeletal for ease of maintenance
Muruganantham’s goal was to create user-friendly technology. The mission was not just to increase the use of sanitary pads, but also to create jobs for rural women – women like his mother. Following her husband’s death in a road accident, Muruganantham’s mother had had to sell everything she owned and get a job as a farm labourer, but earning $1 a day wasn’t enough to support four children. That’s why, at the age of 14, Muruganantham had left school to find work.
The machines are kept deliberately simple and skeletal so that they can be maintained by the women themselves. "It looks like the Wright brothers’ first flight," he says. The first model was mostly made of wood, and when he showed it to the Indian Institute of Technology, IIT, in Madras, scientists were sceptical – how was this man going to compete against multinationals?
It was hard even to broach the subject in such a conservative society
It took Muruganantham 18 months to build 250 machines, which he took 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. Here, women often have to walk for miles to fetch water, something they can’t do when they are menstruating – so families suffer.
It was hard even to broach the subject in such a conservative society. "To speak to rural women, we need permission from the husband or father," he says. "We can only talk to them through a blanket."
There are still many taboos around menstruation in India. Women can’t visit temples or public places, they’re not allowed to cook or touch the water supply – essentially they are considered untouchable. Watch inventor Muruganantham’s TED Talk below.
Click to see the full in-depth BBC report, by Vibeke Venema.
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Lack of access to menstrual products impacts millions of girls across the Global South. As many as 10% miss school because of it. The effect of these missed days is devastating, with girls missing up to 20% of their education, thereby increasing the likelihood of dropping out, earlier marriage and pregnancy as well as limiting career options. Donate to PADS4GIRLS