Arunachalam Muruganantham has done something, which is a very difficult task even for men, particularly in India. He invented a set of machines which manufacture sanitary pads for women at a lower price and the best part is that he is employing women to make these pads, thus creating job opportunities for them. Needless to say, menstruation being considered as a taboo in India, it was a humongous task for him and it came at a great personal cost. But he fought against all the odds to create a solution for this major problem women are facing. His achievement has won him many accolades from around the world, he is also the recipient of the coveted Padma Shri award by the President of India.
He is India’s “Menstruation Man” and he shares his story with The Logical Indian in an exclusive interview.
1. How did the idea of building this machine come to you?
I came to know about my wife’s menstruation after our marriage in 1998. She used rags and nasty clothes to prevent it, instead of using sanitary pads because they were not always available and affordable. I looked further into the matter and found hardly any woman using sanitary pads in the surrounding village. Then I decided to address this problem myself and made my own products. Since my wife and relatives were not ready to participate in my experiment. I went to convince few medical college girl, but that did not work as well.
So I decided to conduct the experiment on myself. I became the man who wore a sanitary pad. I created a uterus from a football bladder by punching a couple of holes in it, and filling it with goat’s blood. I put that inside my dress and pumped the blood on the pad while doing regular work to check how well does the absorption go. But it started to smell foul and everyone in my village thought I have contracted some sexual disease. Even my wife, for whom I started this research left me after 18 months.
People used to think that I was a pervert and possessed by black magic because I used to conduct research on used sanitary pads. So I left my village and tried to find out how big companies make sanitary pads.
It was very difficult task, but after two years, finally I got a mail which said that the pads are made of cellulose from the bark of a tree. The machines to make those pads cost thousands of dollars. So after working for over four years I succeeded in creating a low-cost method. It requires a machine similar to a kitchen grinder that breaks down the hard cellulose into the fluffy material, which is packed into rectangular cakes with another machine. The cakes are then wrapped in non-woven cloth and disinfected in an ultraviolet treatment unit. The whole process can be learned in an hour.
2. How is your model to develop low-cost pads different from any other commercial pads?
The whole idea was not just to make sanitary pads. I wanted to reach out to most part of India so that women start using these pads. Also, I wanted to create jobs for rural women. Now rural women are making these pads with the help of small machines that are easy to use. So women are making these items for women. This is helping women to get employment. And these are solely made in India and nowhere else has taken up this model.
3. Has the government or anyone else from other parties have helped you for this initiative?
The government and other political parties come forward to only tap the vote banks. I raised my demand to the government of setting up factories, I told them that by this we can create the livelihood for poor women. But the government didn’t listen to me and introduced a new plan to distribute free pads all over India, but it has not been successful at all because no one can go and approach women to give them sanitary pads. There is a big problem of awareness in the country. Though educated women use pads, but it is not the same case everywhere because of availability and affordability. We need thousands of volunteers to create awareness among people.
4. There’s a lot of taboos associated with menstruation, how do you deal with these problems?
We go village to village arranging workshops and try to involve more and more women in our work. They work with us in creating these pads and create awareness among women. This is how we fighting against the taboos we have in our society. It took 18 months to build 250 machines, which I took out to states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. To speak to rural women, we need permission from the husband or father.
There are also myths and fears surrounding the use of sanitary pads – that women who use them will go blind, for example, or will never get married. But slowly, village by village, there was cautious acceptance and over time, the machines spread to 23 states.
5. Why don’t you want to make your products for corporations?
My work is a product of social entrepreneurship. I want to invest in this model because I want to do something for women by involving women. If corporations buy these, then the products won’t be available at a cheaper price. Therefore, I go to many villages across the country and ask women to get involved in the work, which won’t be the case for big corporations.
6. What are your future plans?
My aim is to create more and more job opportunities across India and other countries as well. I am now planning to expand to 106 countries of the world, including Kenya, Bangladesh, Mauritius, Philippines, Nigeria that face similar problems like India.
7. How does it feel to win Padma Shri award?
From my childhood, I have learnt achievements should be reached to serve a purpose. The moment you want to achieve something for money, it will go all wrong. Although I am happy that the government has recognised my efforts, I would say all I just deed is searched for a problem, not an opportunity. I was determined to solve an existing problem in the society.
8. Any message you would like to share with the The Logical Indian community?
I would like to say, don’t ever judge anyone by their education and qualifications. Even an uneducated person can achieve something great and probably without any fear. The moment person graduates, he is full of fears about his work and salary. But uneducated people work without any inhibitions. When any person can fight against this fear, he or she will be able to achieve something great.