Period poverty in developing countries further inflicts inequality on women. Period poverty is when there is a lack of access for women and young girls to education and sanitary products. In India, 71% of adolescent girls remain unaware of menstruation until their first period. Even recently, in 2020, the lack of access to sanitary products worsened as there was a shortage in supply due to manufacturers turning their attention to the production of face masks. Sanitary products were not on the Indian government’s essentials list during the lockdown despite being necessary for more than 45% of the population. Around 20-30% of children living on the street in India are female, and as many toilet facilities require payment, there is an added financial burden for poor women in India. Here is how a man with the nickname Padman is addressing period poverty in India.
How Arunachalam Muruganantham Got Started
In 2012, Arunachalam Muruganantham shared how he became a successful social entrepreneur and changed the lives of women in India facing period poverty at HerStory’s Women on a Mission Summit. Arunachalam Muruganantham was born in Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, India. Muruganantham grew up in poverty after losing his father in a road accident. Due to this, he worked various jobs, including machine tool operator, farm laborer and welder, to support his family. In 1998, he married a woman named Shanthi. Muruganantham discovered his wife using dirty rags and newspapers to construct a period pad during her menstrual cycle. This was due to the expensive cost of the sanitary napkins that multinational corporations produced. Despite the raw materials costing ₹10 ($0.13), the end product was sold for 40 times that price, sustaining the burden of period poverty for women in India.
Muruganantham decided this was unacceptable and began designing experimental pads made of cotton, though his wife and sisters later rejected these. His wife and sisters refused to volunteer for his experiments, so he looked for female volunteers in his village to test his invention. However, due to the taboo nature surrounding the topic of periods in India, everyone refused. Muruganantham decided to test the product himself, using a bladder filled with animal blood. When his invention was discovered, he was ridiculed and ostracized by the community and family.
Constructing the Pads
Muruganantham discovered that the commercial pads used cellulose fibers derived from pine bark wood pulp, which helped the pad absorb liquid while retaining its shape. The imported machines used to make these pads cost ₹35 million ($440,000), so Muruganantham devised an alternative low-cost machine. By sourcing the wood pulp from a supplier in Mumbai, Muruganantham created a machine that ground, de-fibrated, pressed and sterilized the pads under ultraviolet light. This machine only costs ₹65,000 ($810).
In 2006, Muruganantham visited IIT Madras and registered his invention for the National Innovation Foundation’s Grassroots Technological Innovations Award, which it won. Through this, he was able to obtain funding and market these machines to women across rural India. Despite corporations offering to commercialize his invention, Muruganantham has refused and continues to only provide these machines to self-help groups run by women. Muruganantham’s story became the subject of an award-winning documentary by Amit Virmani called Menstrual Man. Muruganantham has now become known as Padman, a social entrepreneur whose invention has changed women’s lives in India who were facing period poverty.
How His Work Lives On
Arunachalam Muruganantham’s invention continues to support women in India and has inspired upcoming social entrepreneurs such as Ajinkya Dhariya. In 2022, Dhariya took his idea for a start-up that develops sustainable sanitary disposal technologies to Shark Tank India. “One sanitary napkin takes 500 to 800 years to decompose, and 98% of sanitary napkins go into landfills and water bodies. They are also burnt at 800 degrees with incineration, producing hazardous waste, toxic smell and smoke,” Dhariya said on Shark Tank India.
Dhariya’s company, PadCare, offers a bin to store waste for 30 days without bacterial growth or smell. The company has 150 major clients, such as Facebook and Goldman Sachs, and has installed more than 5,500 PadCare bins across India. The company has received international interest from countries such as the U.S., Canada and Singapore. The work of social entrepreneurs and inventors in India has improved the lives of women facing period poverty. By breaking down the taboo surrounding women’s menstruation and sexual health in India, the country can lessen period poverty.
– Anjini Snape