Menstrual Man (2017)

*written with the help of my speech coach, Avi Jaggi

A high-school dropout has revolutionized menstrual health in India. “It all started with my wife”, tells Arunachalam Muruganantham to BBC of January 5th 2017. Shortly after being married, Muruganantham noticed his wife hiding a set of dirty rags. Until one day, when he discovered that she used these during menstruation. He states, “I wouldn’t even use them on my scooter, let alone my body”. But his wife had no choice. Like thousands of women in India, she couldn’t afford sanitary pads. According to The New York Times of November 10th 2016, nearly 88% percent of women in India must resort to ash, newspapers, dried leaves and even sand during periods. This led Muruganantham to find a solution. And in 2010 he did.

The Hindustan Times of January 3rd 2017 reports, Muruganantham manufactured a machine that mass produce pads at a fraction of industry prices. These machines are deliberately kept simple so they can be owned and operated by rural women. In a country where 1 in 5 girls drop out of school due to poor menstruation hygiene, Muruganantham’s machine is saving millions of lives. Therefore, it’s imperative we look at his invention, observe its impact, before finally drawing implications. Because as Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, once said,  “You can tell the status of a nation by looking at the condition of its women.”

Muruganantham wasn’t born an expert at creating sanitary pads. He needed some help. In his 2012 Ted Talk, he explains, he had no access to cellulose, a critical component to creating the pads. So he pretended to be a rich billionaire and requested samples from large manufacturing corporations. A few weeks later, boxes of cellulose arrived. But that was just the beginning. To fully understand how his machine came about, let’s look at why it was needed in the first place and the final product.

Menstruation is like Voldemort in India: everyone knows it exists but it must not be named. For women, this means isolation. From being denied access to temples, to being secluded in their own homes, the social stigma surrounding periods makes it impossible to have open discussions. As a result, young women and girls lack basic understanding of how to deal with periods. The numbers are staggering.  India Times of March 17, 2017 approximates around 200 million girls in India that lack awareness of menstrual hygiene. Furthermore, a WaterAid survey notes around 70% of all reproductive diseases in India stem from neglecting menstrual hygiene. In addition to awareness, there has been a serious shortage of availability and affordability of pads. As seen with Muruganantham’s wife, rural women simply cannot afford to splurge on such luxuries. Muruganantham himself had to travel 13 kilometers to see a pad first-hand. When having to make the choice between getting pads or keeping the food on the table, most women choose the latter.

Muruganantham began experimenting with different materials, but didn’t find much success early on. Having to wait every month for his wife’s period to test the pads slowed his process down immensely. So he had to try them himself. He explains in his award winning 2015 documentary Menstrual Man, he punched holes into a soccer ball and filled it with goat’s blood to resemble a uterus. That’s so not what we were taught in health about uteri. The ball was placed on his hip and a tube led from the artificial uterus to the sanitary pad in his pants, TMI I know, but this did lead to instant results and accurate feedback. After 4 and a half years, he finally had a final product. Gizmodo of March 4, 2014 explains the machine breaks down hard cellulose into fluffy material. It is then packed into rectangular cakes by a pressing machine. The cakes are wrapped in non-woven cloth and, finally disinfected in an ultraviolet treatment unit. New York Times of November 10, 2016 found each of these machines converts at least 3,000 women into pad users, producing between one to three thousand pads a day, selling for about 4 cents each. This diminishes obstacles of awareness, availability, and affordability. 

Local villagers saw Muruganantham’s interest in women’s hygiene as a little weird. A ma n comfortable discussing this topic in India was as taboo as menstruation itself. He must’ve been either a pervert or possessed. Luckily, after surviving the scrutiny, his hard work did pay off. His invention led to two critical impacts: providing rural women with financial independence and reforming the pad industry. 

First, Muruganantham wanted to create employment opportunities for rural women. In his 2012 Ted Talk, he explains, the machine was deliberately kept simple so women with little to no education could operate it. The goal was to battle sexism through economics by giving rural women autonomy over their livelihood. New York Times of November 10, 2016 states each of his machines provides employment for at least 10 women. Currently, more than 2400 machines are installed across 27 states in India and 17 other countries. That’s at least 24,000 lives of women that Muruganantham has transformed. In a patriarchal society like India, his machine is providing much more than just clean pads. 

Next, Muruganantham has transformed the quality of materials consisting in a pad. Al Jazeera of March 8, 2016 notes, beyond being simply cost efficient, these pads are biodegradable and comprised of organic materials. A shift that even American companies haven’t caught up to yet.  Andrea Donsky, author of Label Lessons explains mainstream American companies use harmful toxins like dioxins and chlorine bleach in their pads to lower production costs. Basically, each conventional pad contains the equivalent of about four plastic bags. Now I know what Katy Perry meant when she asked, “do you ever feel like a plastic bag”. Yes I do, Katy. In fact, I  feel like 4.

In April 2015, Kiran Gandhi ran a 26 mile marathon without a tampon, flaunting her period stained pants. Seeking to encourage women to be unashamed of their periods, she told People Magazine on August 13, 2015 that our culture is happy to speak about and objectify the parts of the body that can be sexually consumed, but the moment we talk about something that is not for the enjoyment of others, like a period, everyone becomes deeply uncomfortable. We can draw two implications: normalizing periods and re-entrenching patriarchy. 

First, for something that has over 5,000 slang terms, like shark week, Bloody Mary, red wedding, the period is one of the most ignored human rights issues across the globe—affecting everything from education and economics to the environment and public health—but that’s finally starting to change. In the wake of his invention, several others have begun breaking taboos surrounding periods. There have been so many pop culture moments around menstruation recently that NPR called 2015 “the year of the period,” and Cosmopolitan said it was “the year the period went public.”. For the first time, Americans are talking about gender equality, feminism and social change through women’s periods, which, as feminist Gloria Steinem puts it, is “evidence of women finally taking their place as half the human race.”

Second, while well intended, Muruganantham’s machine highlights centuries of continued patriarchy. The success of his invention validates the idea that only men can bring about change. Women have made calls for reform within women’s hygiene for decades, yet only when a man decided to speak did they see change. Why have women’s struggles not been heard until a male brought it up? Today, tampons and pads are taxed in most states while adult diapers, Viagra, and Rogaine are not. Men can walk into any bathroom and access all of the supplies they need to care for themselves. Women, however, can’t even have a 15 cent pad. Furthermore, in most schools, girls have to trek to the nurse’s office to ask for a pad or tampon, as if menstruating is an illness rather than a natural function. 

Last year, Muruganantham won the Padma Shree Award, one of India’s highest civilian honors as well as Indian Business Leader of the Year. This high school dropout revolutionized the pad industry and improved the lives of many. Even today, he has not used his machine to create a single dollar. Well, it’s rupees in India. As he likes to put it, “ I have accumulated no money, but a lot of blessings.” 

Read modified version here.

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