It’s that time of the month again. It’s uncomfortable, painful, and no woman really enjoys it but it is a fact of life. So let’s come out and say it together--all women get their period, and it’s time everybody in India accepted it. The myths, superstitions and complete lack of information regarding female hygiene is so high that young girls have started to fear their own bodies. In fact, in a study by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), in 2015-2016, it was recorded that approximately 70% of girls across India had no knowledge of menstruation at the onset of menarche. This is a very real phenomenon, and a growing problem that is proving to be fatal. The menstruation taboo is so strong that a culture of silence is being appropriated, where women grow to look at their own body in shame and disgust.
623 million women comprise India’s 1.28 billion population, with close to 72% of the population living in rural areas. Only 1 in 10 menstruating women in India use sanitary pads. When it comes to menstrual hygiene, women in rural areas suffer the most; 93% of these women don’t use sanitary pads. The majority of rural women lack information, finances and the accessibility to proper hygiene; they resort to using rags, pieces of cloth, husk, sand and even ash. Reproductive Tract Infections (RTIs) are 70% more common among women who use such unhygienic materials and 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene, which affects the maternal mortality rate as well. Girls are typically absent for 20% of the school year, most of them even dropping out of school after the 5th grade, when their menstrual cycle begins.
Sanitary pads are an essential need for women. These statistic are astounding; forming a part of the massive amounts of research done by a man, Arunachalam Muruganantham, on a mission to provide low cost sanitary pads to rural women. Muruganantham talks about his journey into women’s health, social entrepreneurship and his many obstacles in Amit Virmani’s documentary ‘Menstrual Man.’
In his film, Virmani tells Muruganantham’s story as he travels from village to village setting up his revolutionary machines. A 9th grade dropout from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, Muruganantham belongs to the bottom of the economic ladder. His quest began when he discovered that his wife belongs to that majority of women who don’t use sanitary pads, and it worried him. Her reason behind it, she stated, wasn’t due to lack of knowledge, she had seen the advertisements. Buying sanitary pads would lead to a cut in the families budget for milk and household items, so to her it wasn’t a priority. These are the kind of compromises women are forced into. Feeling ashamed at the fact that not only his wife but his sister, mother and women everywhere in Indian villages suffer in the same manner, Muruganantham declared that a change needs to be made, and he was the one to do it.
As he researched sanitary pads and womens health practices in the field, Muruganantham became a pariah in his village. He soon became an embarrassment to his wife and mother, who consequently abandoned him, as he was continued to be tagged as a pervert and sexual deviant. Murugananthams determination didn’t flinch and an unsuccessful survey of female medical students made him conduct a very interesting, innovative and a pretty whacky experiment on his own. He explains that to test the quality and effectiveness of the sanitary pads he was experimenting with at the time, he would wear them himself. He made an artificial uterus by cutting open a football and taking out the ‘bladder,’ the rubber sack that gets filled with air. He collected animal blood from a butcher friend and filled the artificial bladder, he would go about his day with it strapped to him and release small doses of blood throughout the day. “I would keep checking my clothes for stains. I’d become a woman!” he laughs, recalling the experience in the film. Soon, he aptly came to be known as ‘the man who wore a sanitary pad.’
It took close to 7 years, but Muruganantham after all his trials and tribulations, by trial and error, came to design a sanitary pad which absorbed and holds in liquid, using cellulose/cotton from the bark of a particular tree. These can be made easily by women with low costing raw materials in all areas. This ‘self-taught engineer’ took a multi-million dollar machine used by major corporations and broke them down into three - four easy to use machines. “Now any rural woman can produce world class sanitary napkins,” he says with a big smile on his face.
Jovial and humble to heart; Muruganantham is lovable from the very beginning of the film. After years of hard work and research, he has not only accomplished his goal to provide low-costing and top quality sanitary pads, but has also created sustainable employment for rural women, who work in the production and distribution of the pads, in conjunction with NGOs and women’s self help groups, in villages across various developing states of the country. He himself travels to villages and sets up workshops for production and distribution. Assembling the machines and then training the women how to use them effectively; this job has never been about profit for him, as he on a number of occasions has turned down offers from MNCs in metropolitan cities and even offers from abroad.
Having supplied 643 machines across 23 states in the country, his next dream is to make all developing countries 100% sanitary pad using nations. He is expanding to 106 countries across the globe, including Kenya, Nigeria, Mauritius, the Philippines, and Bangladesh. Convinced that he wasn’t a pervert and a madman his wife and mother reunited with him. In 2009, he was the recipient of the very well deserved National Innovation Foundation Award from the President of India, and was on the list of Time Magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential People in the World 2014.’
Sadly, his story might not be heard, as it should be. Amit Virmani’s documentary ‘Menstrual Man’ has not been allowed a release. He was requested to change the title of the film, which he denied. A request which perhaps only furthers the point being made regarding the silencing of a natural female bodily function. We live in a society where 70% of women (ICMR Report) consider menstruation to be ‘dirty’ and ‘polluting.’ In the Kumaon district of Uttarakhand, women are made to undertake a ‘purification’ ritual that involves washing their clothes and bodies with cow urine, even consuming it, to ‘cleanse’ themselves.
The documentary plaintively concludes that there are some taboos that can never be wiped out completely from India, and this is one of them. The existence of a set of customs and norms that regulates the behaviour and movements of girls to within a room; which considers her to be impure and polluted, making her unable to even touch her family members, calls for a complete upheaval of the prevailing mindset. Such practices need to be stopped, proper menstrual hygiene needs to be promoted, the work and achievements of a man like Arunachalam Muruganantham needs to be applauded and celebrated; his practices and models implemented across the country. It really is surprising to see that a man of Muruganantham’s social and educational background is more forward thinking and concerned about issues affecting women, than those in so-called modern, urban and educated India. It’s another misguided perception that we form of people that has made this so surprising, inspiring and also humbling, at the same time.
Feature image courtesy www.toganz.net