Period Poverty in IndiaPeriod 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
Photo: Unsplash

premature hysterectomies in IndiaThe stigma surrounding menstrual periods continues to plague India. Due to the frequent lack of sex education and conversation about periods, many Indian girls grossly lack education about their cycles.  Local period taboos and social media moral police trolls widely shame girls about their menstruation. In fact, period taboo is leading to premature hysterectomies in India.

These period taboos significantly impact poorer women living in rural areas including Bend and  Sangli. These women migrate to the more affluent western “sugar belt” districts to work for six months as cutters in the sugar cane fields.  Cane cutting contractors hesitate to employ women who menstruate because they assume that they will miss a day or two a month due to their periods.

Because sugar cane cutting is frequently a family’s primary source of income in rural India, thousands of menstruating women have been electing to have hysterectomies, which are irreversible surgeries, to eliminate the “problem” of their period.

Indian Period Taboos

Menstruating women are frequently banned from religious, social and work environments during their cycles.  Indian society considers periods impure and girls who have their periods dirty.  Uneducated parents rarely prepare their daughters for their menstrual cycles, so when they arrive, fear and anxiety plague young women. Due to unsanitary lavatories and lack of access to sanitary products, 23 million Indian girls drop out of school after they get their periods. They also fear mocking from classmates for staining.

What is a Hysterectomy?

A hysterectomy is a surgical procedure that results in the removal of a woman’s uterus and, in some cases, her ovaries and fallopian tubes. In doing so, a woman loses the ability to become pregnant, will not menstruate and may experience a reduction in hormone production.  After undergoing a premature hysterectomy, many women must undergo hormone therapy to stay healthy and prevent further health complications.

Premature Hysterectomies in Rural India

In rural India many women feel as if they must eliminate their menstrual cycles entirely in order to work. Furthermore, due to the lack of education on the subject of menstrual cycles, doctors at private hospitals easily persuade women to undergo the expensive procedure in order to continue working as cane cutters.  A large percentage of those women are in their 20s and 30s, far younger than the age when experts usually recommend hysterectomies.

Roli Srivastava, author of the column. “Pushed into Hysterectomies” in The Hindu, describes a distinct pattern:  Private hospital doctors coerce poor illiterate women into a premature hysterectomy. These women, who present with easily treatable symptoms such as white discharge, an irregular period or bad cramps willingly elect hysterectomies so they won’t miss work. As she also explains, “their willingness to undergo the procedure stems from the fear of cancer (which doctors convince them of) to the belief that their uteruses are of no use once they have had children.”

A “Moneymaking Racket”

According to Srivastava, hysterectomies are a “moneymaking racket” in India for private hospitals. When illiterate rural women with menstrual cramps and heavy bleeding go to clinics, the doctors don’t give them options.  They don’t even let them consult their families, and they are not told the cause of their problems or informed about the procedure.  They often don’t know if their ovaries have been removed as well as their uterus.  The operation is expensive, and many rural clients’ insurance does not cover the operation.  Families need to go to moneylenders to get the funds for the operation.  In Maharashtra, the average cost of a hysterectomy is $598 and the average daily wage for a female worker is $2.98.

The Numbers

According to Indian Media, over a three-year period, more than 4,500 young women had premature hysterectomies in the Beed district alone. And the numbers are going up.  A 2018 government survey found that 22,000 women between 18 and 49 had hysterectomies. In one study that interviewed 200 women, 69% were unsure or uninformed of the nature of whether their procedure had removed their whole uterus or just their ovaries.

The Solution

Education about menstruation and personal hygiene is the key lever to reducing period taboo and premature hysterectomies in India. Education will enable more women to exert their rights in many other areas as well such as choosing contraceptives and making their own informed health decisions.  Photographer Niraj Gera, writes, “It is time we realize that menstruation is just a biological process and the secrecy surrounding it must go. It is important to normalize menstruation and destroy taboos around this natural process” As a strong advocate for period education he concludes, “Talking is all it takes to begin a transformation and it’s time we did it.”

– Opal Vitharana
Photo: Wikimedia Commons