PERIOD WEEK: Menstrual Man

Clara Vlessing explores how one man risked everything to solve India’s menstrual hygiene crisis 

This article is part of That’s What She Said’s ‘Period Week’. To read the introduction to ‘Period Week’ check out Maya Jones’ article:

Comedian Aditi Mittal joked, “I have realised that saying sanitary napkins in public, is like standing in a Hogwarts common room and saying ‘Voldemort’”.

The stigmatisation of menstruation is a worldwide phenomenon. In India it has both harmful physical and social effects.

Sanitary towels are used by seven percent of the country, and in rural areas a mere two percent. Instead, Indian women use rags, sand, sawdust, leaves or even ash, to stem their monthly bleeding. Rags are not always cleaned properly and are hung out to dry in shaded areas, far from the view of men.

As a result, they are said to be the cause of around 70 percent of India’s reproductive diseases. The absence of appropriate menstrual products prevents many girls from attending school: 23 percent of girls drop out of school when they start menstruating. It also keeps women out of the workforce.

Menstruation is laden with taboo; Indian people with periods are often considered untouchable. They are prevented from entering temples or public places, they cannot cook or touch the water supply and they are not allowed to be in physical proximity to their friends or family.

Menstrual Man is a 2013 documentary film directed by Amit Virmani. It tells the story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, inventor of a sanitary-pad-making-machine. Muruganantham has been described as the ‘unlikely hero’ of India’s rural women. And ‘unlikely’ he certainly is.

Muruganantham is a gentle, smiling middle-aged man, self-professed to be ‘uneducated’; he is the son of a handloom weaver, who grew up in poverty after his father was killed in a road accident.

He speaks in idiosyncratic English and engages with the camera in a charming and humorous manner. As the documentary progresses, Muruganantham’s intelligence and drive become increasingly evident.

Muruganantham says, “It is shameful for me. Finally India needed a school dropout to make sanitary pads for Indian women.”

Menstrual Man’s journey began in 1998. He discovered that his wife Shanthi was hiding rags from him that she had used during her period. Muruganantham claims these rags were so disgusting that he would not even use them to “clean his scooter”. But when he asked her why she didn’t use sanitary pads, Shanthi explained that the cost of buying them would mean she could not afford to buy basic foodstuffs for their household.

Muruganantham obsessively set out to solve this problem. He constructed a sanitary pad for Shanthi out of cotton and immediately demanded a response. He was disappointed to learn that he was going to have to wait a month at a time for feedback and realised he was going to need more volunteers.

After a failed attempt to use girls from a local medicine school, Muruganantham entered into the most ridiculous phase of his research: he decided to have his own periods.

This was an elaborate task, he fashioned himself a makeshift uterus out of a football bladder, made holes in the bladder and filled it with a mixture of goat’s blood (from a school friend who was a butcher) and additives (to stop the blood clotting).

Every so often he would squeeze a small pump, releasing blood from the bladder into a sanitary towel he wore to test its absorption rates. He washed the bloodied clothes in public.

Muruganantham says, “the whole village thought I had a sexual disease. They didn’t know what I was doing. They thought I was washing my private parts.”

He says this looking into the camera wide-eyed, smiling and suggestive, aware of his own ridiculousness. But there is a sadder side to Muruganantham’s surreal experiment: after 18 months of research, his wife decided he was a pervert and left him.

However, he was not discouraged and began studying used sanitary towels to find out their secrets. As a result, his mother also turned on him and the villagers where he lived became certain he was possessed by evil spirits and he was forced to leave.

Despite all of this, Muruganantham remained impressively stubborn in his plight to create the perfect cheap sanitary towel. After writing to several big manufacturing companies he was sent a large amount of cellulose from the bark of the tree, which is far more absorbent than regular cotton.

Still Muruganantham struggled: the machines used to break down this material were far too expensive for him and he resorted to creating his own. After four and a half years work, he created a machine that made sanitary towels in a simple process that could be learnt in an hour.

His fortunes began to change: he was nominated for and received a national innovation award he brought his machines to rural villages across India and his wife, mother and village began to accept him back into their community.

Muruganantham explains, “If you act like an illiterate man, your learning will never stop…Being uneducated, you have no fear of the future.”

Despite his increasing success, Muruganantham is uninterested in the celebrity or money offered to him by large corporations. Each machine provides employment for around ten local women. Muruganantham remains insistent that the machines should be kept at a level of simplicity where they can be used by uneducated women and do not necessitate any complex renovation.

The women who work the machines sell the sanitary pads straight on to customers, rather than using shops, which are run by men, and often put customers off. Furthermore, in acquiring them from women rather than men, the customers get the necessary information on how to go about using them. Menstrual Man says it himself: he has started a revolutionary “low-cost sanitary pad movement”.

By the time the documentary was filmed, the machines were being used by 1,300 villages in 23 states. Having visited the most remote and conservative parts of India, Muruganantham is hoping to go further afield. His aim is to expand to 106 countries across the globe. These include Kenya, Nigeria, Mauritius, the Philippines and Bangladesh.

Menstrual Man is by no means flawless. Many have pointed out the ecological effects of this “low-cost sanitary pad movement”: the pads are not recycled, they are used and disposed of, chucked on the ground and left. However, it is a brilliant example of the power of an individual to make a difference.

Through his obsessive inventing, Muruganantham risks his relationship with his family and his financial and social position – but he consistently maintains his sense of humour. Menstrual Man is, tellingly, an amusing film. But why shouldn’t it be? Taboos do not need to be broken with a straight face, when they themselves are ridiculous.

For more information, watch Muruganantham’s TED talk:

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