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A story about an Indian school drop-out’s invention that caused a ‘Menstrual Hygiene Revolution’.
Innovation matters. Innovations change the way we live our lives. We use hundreds of products but the story behind their invention is often unknown. One such story is of an extraordinary husband who wanted his bride, Shanthi, to quit using unhygienic alternatives to sanitary pads – with this dream he changed the course of female hygiene in developing countries.
Sanitary Pada are an essential item for all people with a uterus (Remember? There are women who do not have a uterus and people who have a uterus but do not identify as a woman). In rural parts of developing countries, 95% of households cannot afford this essential item and switch to unhygienic alternatives such as old rags, newspapers, banana leaves, dust etc. Not only is this a very impractical and uncomfortable alternative but puts their health in serious danger.
Shanthi’s husband, Arunachalam Muruganantham, was one special man who noticed the hardships she faced during her period. He decided to provide her an easy and safe solution and after that decision, it took him 10 years, but he changed the course of menstrual hygiene for rural households across the globe.
Muruganantham got married to Shanthi in 1998. Few days after his marriage, while Shanthi was drying clothes, he saw her strategically cover a dirty piece of rag with a freshly washed saree. Confused, he asked her why she did that and with a half-shocked, half-embarrassed look on her face Shanthi told him to never speak about it again. Muruganantham realized she was using that unhygienic, dirty cloth to manage her periods. Shocked out of his wits, he realized that the cloth his wife used to absorb her menstrual blood, he would not use to wipe the dust off his scooter. When he asked her why she did not use sanitary pads, Shanthi was very uncomfortable with the conversation – but told him that if she started buying pads they would not have enough milk for the family. As a newlywed husband, Muruganantham wanted to impress Shanthi and went to buy a sanitary pad for her. Once he told the shopkeeper he wanted a sanitary pad, the shopkeeper dug into a corner took out a sanitary pad, quickly concealed it with multiple layers of newspaper, put it inside a carry bag, and hastily handed it to Muruganantham. Muruganantham found the whole episode very funny considering he was not buying a hazardous item, but all his amusement disappeared as the Shopkeeper asked him for a whooping 4 Rupees (0.05 cents). Murugananntham handed him the money and went home to surprise his wife
Later that day, he took one of the pads and tore it open. He was expecting to see something interesting inside the pad, but the innards seemed to be nothing but compressed cotton. He wondered why 10 grams of cotton — costing barely 10 paise (€0,001) — was being sold at 40 times the cost. “I am the son of a hand-loom weaver, I have a connection with yarn. I can make an affordable sanitary pad for my wife” Murugananntham was convinced.
The next day he went out to buy the softest cotton, immediately sewed it between two pieces of cloth, and asked his wife to test it. His wife was very embarrassed to have her husband involved in this ‘dirty business’ but unwillingly tried his first prototype the following month. She went back to her husband angrily and told him it was no good, he had just caused her to bleed out in front of the others – ann act of great shame and embarrassment. Shanthi declared that she preferred the dirty rags over Muruganantham’s silly attempt. Muruganantham had to improve his product. But every time he changed something, he needed someone to tell him if he had gotten it right. He could not ask his already angry wife, and nevertheless, he could not wait for a month to know if it had finally worked. He asked his sister for help, but she strongly told him to never speak of this again.
Baffled, Muruganantham realised the women around him did not see their problems as they were. He decided to speak to women who would have a more knowledgeable approach and went to the nearby medical college. He waited outside the college gate and approached the female students as they left. While some found it a grave conversation, few others agreed to help him. This went o for a bit, but no good came of it. Muruganantham was soon noticed by the college guard and was reported as harassing the female students. The news about his intentions spread quickly and Muruganantham was shunned from entering the area. Even today in parts of rural India, women are dissuaded from entering worship houses during their periods.. Talking about them with an unknown man, 12 years ago, in a rural village was nothing less than losing your virtue.
Out of desperation, Muruganantham decided to test his prototypes himself. To replicate menstrual bleeding, he tied an old soccer-ball, filled with goat’s blood around his hip. A friend who worked at a hospital supplied an anticoagulant and as Muruganantham walked and peddled around the village – the fake ‘bladder’ was pressed and squirted blood. He realized the difficulty women face in their lifetime. He had a new sense of empathy for women around him.This was an achievement in some way, but his home-made pad had still not worked. Muruganantham bled out while riding his bicycle and the village saw it happen. It took less than a day’s time for the news to spread and what happened next was arguably his lowest point in this journey.
Shanthi had heard rumors that Muruganantham was meeting women from the medical college. When Muruganantham had explained they were only helping him make a sanitary pad, Shanthi was infuriated more than before. The news of him having bled like a woman only brought more shame to Shanthi. She could not walk in the streets while ignoring the side eyes and the judgement she was subjected to. Muruganantham made it clear that he would not give into the societal stigma and continue his project, not just for Shanthi but for the many women around him who struggled every day. Left with no choice, Shanthi decided to leave and go to her parents’ village. This drived Muruganantham, more than before, to continue his attempts and not only make an affordable sanitary pad but change the mindset of those around him.
He went to the National Innovation Foundation where he exhibited his prototypes. The exhibit was organized by one of the known researchers in India Anil Gupta. Gupta recognized the everyday struggle for survival that ordinary Indians endured especially those in rural villages. To him Muruganantham’s efforts were a powerful drive of creativity and innovation. Gupta taught him everything that he needed and drove him to the right direction.
So Muruganantham focused on the materials, he was determined that the cotton for the napkins are a different variety. He researched and looked for different kinds of cotton. He called various American manufacturers but he ended up mazed around the voice prompts. When he finally found some helpful representatives to answer his inquiry, they were bewildered.
Muruganantham spent the next four and a half years developing a cheaper alternative. Turning his home into a workshop and laboratory. To make things even harder for him, the villagers believed that he had become possessed by demons and needed an exorcism. So he had to move out of his house into a room he rented in downtown with five other tenants. To finance his work he was doing roofing jobs besides his welding work for extra income. He found the trial and error of the research process thrilling.
I may fail today, but if I have another idea tomorrow, maybe it will work, This is what I enjoyed.
In the end, Muruganantham designed what was a large meat grinder to break compacted cellulose into clouds of fibrous strands. He made another device — a kind of drill press — to compress the fluffy material to the thickness of a pad.
Muruganantham made another trip to the medical college, only this time with a new kind of pad. Days later, when he went back to the campus to ask for feedback, he saw one of the women volunteers coming toward him, riding a scooter. She stopped and smiled. “When I use your napkin,” she said, “I forget that I’m having my period.” Muruganantham lit up. “That’s when I felt I had achieved what I had set out to do,” he said.
His first breakthrough had taken him six years.
After his creation won a local innovation contest and where he got interviewed and featured. The potential market for Muruganantham’s invention was vast: Less than 10 percent of women in India were users of sanitary pads. But he wasn’t interested in simply selling a product. Nor was his method suited to high-volume production. It was the opposite of the automated assembly-line manufacturing of large corporations. Muruganantham saw a different possibility. Helping locals in rural and urban communities make and distribute the pads themselves.
For a field trial of the concept, in 2005 he took his equipment to a remote district in Bihar, one of India’s least-developed states. But when he talked to local men about what he wanted to do, he came perilously close to being beaten up. He learned that he had to ask permission from fathers and husbands and brothers before pitching the idea to women. It took months, and many visits, to get local women to start making the pads as he’d envisioned, using machinery he produced.
The factory where Muruganantham fabricates his equipment is low-tech, housed alongside similar units in an industrial compound off a dirt road. The manufacturing took place in an air-conditioned room that I had to take my shoes off before entering. A rule enforced by employees to keep the floors from getting dusty. First, a woman broke off a few pieces of compacted cellulose and put them in a grinder for two minutes. Next, she put about 10 grams of the resulting fluff into three rectangular compartments inside a metal frame. She placed the frame under a pneumatic press with three metal plates that came down. At the flick of a switch, to squish the fluffy cellulose into a half-inch-thick layer. Another worker carefully used a brush to glue a thin plastic film on the bottom of the three rectangles. A third woman wrapped each of them in a gauzy cloth, and then closed up the sides with a heat-sealing machine. The entire process took about 10 minutes.
The pads couldn’t have been more basic. Offered a stark contrast, in appearance and sophistication. To the winged, ultrathin, superabsorbent products sold by multinationals. Not to mention the latest arrivals in feminine hygiene — the all-absorbing, no-hassle
Muruganantham won another award at the National Innovation Foundation of India. Where he received seed funding with Jayashree Industries. Which makes his sanitary pads more accessible and available to everyone.
The diffusion of Muruganantham’s innovation across parts of India and elsewhere has earned him global attention.
“Women’s ability to manage their periods with dignity through access to affordable or free products is a human right,” says Megan Mukuria
Founder of the Nairobi-based ZanaAfrica Group, a company that makes and distributes low-cost pads. Importantly, all these innovations recognize that to fuel the “Female Sanitary Revolution”. It is necessary to educate and empower women. Whether it be by training unemployed women to make menstrual kits or by going a step further. Setting up women-led micro-enterprises that market, manufacture, and sell sanitary napkins. These organizations are changing the perception that women should be ashamed of menstruation.
Despite the challenges, painful separations, and countless failures, Muruganantham surpassed it all. Now through his innovations, the lives of many Indian women drastically changed. He only aimed to improve the hygiene and comfort of his beloved but he ended up changing everyone else’s too.
We hope Muruganantham’s story inspires everyone that great innovation requires time and determination.
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