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India’s Sanitary Pad Revolution

Arunachalam Muruganantham is leading a sanitary pad revolution in rural India, changing women and girls’ sanitary practices. Out of 355 million females in India who menstruate, only 12 percent of them use sanitary napkins. The others use ash, newspapers, old fabric or sand. In India, women are considered untouchables at the time of their menstruation, and they face stigma and ostracism during their periods. They are banned from public places during menstruation, so they stay indoors, oftentimes reusing their dirty rags. Poor menstrual hygiene not only causes 70 percent of all reproductive diseases in India, but also can lead to maternal mortality, a lower rate of females enrolled in schools and fewer women in the workforce.

In 1998, Muruganantham discovered that his wife, Shanthi, chose to use dirty menstruation rages, rather than sanitary napkins, because sanitary napkins were too expensive. He decided to make a sanitary napkin that his wife and other women in rural India could afford to buy.

He surveyed female medical students, studied used sanitary napkins, and fashioned a fake uterus from a soccer ball filled with goat’s blood. Tucking the soccer ball under his clothing with a tube feeding the blood into his underwear, he ran and walked around to experience having a period. During his mission to create a low cost sanitary napkin, his wife, his mother and his village would abandon him. Due to his unique experiments, he was labeled a mad pervert, but Muruganatham did not give up.

By contacting multiple large sanitary pad manufacturing companies, he discovered what sanitary napkins were made of: cellulose from tree bark. However, the machines needed to break the cellulose down and make the cellulose into sanitary pads were extremely expensive.

After years of hard work, Muruganatham invented a low-cost wooden machine that could break down the hard cellulose to make sanitary napkins, increase sanitary napkin use and create thousands of jobs for rural women. One of his manual machines costs 75,000 rupees, and provides employment for approximately 10 individuals. They can produce 200-250 pads a day, selling for around 2.5 rupees each. Although his invention could have brought him enormous profits, he chose not to sell the machines to big companies. He continues to sell the machines mainly to NGOs and women’s self-help groups.

Muruganatham’s family and community are now supporting his endeavors. He is currently expanding his machines to 106 other countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, and the Philippines. His low cost, locally produced sanitary napkins are empowering women and girls in developing countries while giving them the opportunity to contribute to their local economy. These sanitary napkins reduce unsanitary menstruation practices and are beginning to chip away at the cultural taboo of menstruation that forces women to feel unclean and untouchable because of a completely natural bodily function.

Sarah Yan

Sources: Business Week, BBC
Photo: The Globe And Mail