Sunday, May 28, 2017

Menstrual Man


Known as the “menstruation man”, Arunachalam Muruganantham is a powerhouse who visualised the propensity for sustainable change in the world of women’s menstrual health and hygiene. While he went about bridging gaps, his successes were not without an element of personal cost. And yet, he braved on. Here is his story

I was born in a poor family. My father was a handloom weaver in Coimbatore, and he had passed away in a road accident in my growing years. My mother took on the reigns of my family overnight, and had to provide for all our needs. My parents were illiterate, even something as simple as signing their own names was beyond them – leave alone being graduates. When my mother had to become the breadwinner, she did so as a worker on a farm, earning Rs. 5. Within that meagre earning, she raised a family of four including herself, my two younger sisters and myself. She had dreams of making me a police officer.

But times were very hard, and I couldn’t continue my studies. I dropped out of school, and began to help my mother by earning as a workshop mechanic. My life, despite the lack of economic comfort, was beautiful and natural. I spent time climbing trees and chasing after butterflies – a factor that is completely absent in the growing years of the current generation which seems to be hooked onto screens. When I turned 16, I joined work with a welding mechanic as a welder. I hung out with shepherds in my village, and it was so interesting to watch one man manage 100 sheep. Nature has so much to offer – and it has been my greatest teacher. I think I’m privileged by not being educated, because it is the uneducated that continue to learn lifelong. Those that are educated think their education stops once they have a degree in hand.

Though I was surrounded by women in my growing years, I never understood menstruation until I got married. My house had a makeshift thatched toilet behind it. The toilet was open – no roof, no door. In my growing years I did notice stained cloth every now and then, but I didn’t ask any questions – I just ran away from it. Sometimes, I thought my sisters had gotten hurt while collecting wood for our cooking fires.

I turned 24, and was the master of my own business, owning a small shop that made windows, gates and similar metal fittings. I got married in 1998, my wife Shanthi and I then lived in a joint family.
It started with me trying to do a small thing that would help my wife. One day, when my wife was carrying something home, she appeared to be hiding it in her hands. I asked her what it was and she told me it was none of my business. Being her husband, I ran after her and found that she had a dirty rag cloth in hand. It was the kind of cloth that I wouldn’t even use to clean my two-wheeler vehicle! But, it reminded me of the cloth that my sisters used. It had blood on it, and after some reluctance, when I asked if she had hurt herself, and then she told me that it was “that time of the month” and that every woman goes through it monthly. Then, I understood that she was adapting an unhygienic tool to manage her period. I asked her why she would use this, when she told me that she knew about sanitary napkins, but using it would mean cutting back on the family’s milk budget.

That shocked me. What was the connection between using a sanitary pad and a milk budget?
That was when I realised that it was about affordability and economics. I tried to tell my wife that she should use sanitary napkins – and that it was important for her health. I made a beeline to a local shop to buy sanitary napkins. When I asked the store keeper, he looked around, pulled up a sheet of newspaper and put the packet into that, and wrapped it up, giving it to me like it was a banned item. I didn’t understand why he did that. But I collected the pad and went home. His behaviour was shocking, really – why would he behave like he was smuggling illegal stuff to me? Why did it have to be wrapped in a newspaper?

I was curious to see what a pad was like. I was 29 years old, and was touching a sanitary pad for the first time. Most men haven’t done this. I realised that the product was made of cotton, produced at a very low price, but sold at exorbitant rates. I decided to make sanitary napkins for my wife’s needs. I needed to test the product, but for that, I would need a woman to be a volunteer. It was tough to find one – so I rounded in on getting my wife on board. I made a sanitary pad and gave it to her. A day came when she said that she would not support me in this. I tried asking for my sisters’ help, but they refused, too. I approached women at medical school, and they refused, too. So I had to take this on myself.

 I decided to use a sanitary pad and test it, myself. I filled animal blood in a bottle fashioned out of a football. I put a tube that would stretch into my panties, and as I went about my work, I pressed the football so that it would release some blood. That experience really opened my eyes. I would bow down to any woman out of respect. I would never forget those five days – they were messy, lousy and wet! My god, it was an unbelievable experience.  

The only place where I could work on this favourably was at IIT. I left everything I owned and moved to Coimbatore. I donated blood for money, I lived in one room with five people for five years while I spent my time and effort developing the machine. By this time, my wife had already returned to her parental home. After my machine was made, I took it to IIT. The first thing I had was criticism. They said it was too simple – and that made me realise that people complicate things just to make it monetarily worthy and profit-worthy. But I was not daunted, simplicity was important because it had to be operable by women who had to make a livelihood with it.  They criticised my machine and even told me that it wouldn’t do well in comparison to western technology. I understood them, but I didn’t know enough English to respond. Then, I went to Madhubani in Bihar, where I took my first machine. It worked. From then on, I realised that it made a difference to reach the ones who needed it, and then to work in a way that would plug the need. 

I then started Jayaashree Industries, and began to work in the village and grass root level. I don’t make much money by selling the machines. Most of my income comes from lectures that I take up abroad. I think we should start working for the rural sector and the emancipation of women very rigorously. How many stories of farmer suicides have you heard in the recent past? Wouldn’t something like these machines help the non-farming sector support the income of families that are heavily dependent on the farming sector? Just imagine this. About 12% of women in India use sanitary napkins. When rural women are given these machines, they can make sanitary pads that are affordable, and then sell them to their village and beyond. How much that can support a family that is otherwise agrarian! We can even prevent farmer suicides with such tools and implements. I am happy to tell you that we have almost 900 brands of sanitary napkins in rural India. Imagine how much it would benefit women and communities if we scaled it.

The greater power in this is that women become the vehicles of the effort – they can talk to other women, raise awareness on menstrual health and hygiene, and teach other women ways to keep their health safe. We are up against a social climate that is filled with taboos and dogmas around menstruation. It is first important to create awareness about menstruation and menstrual hygiene. There are so many superstitions about menstruation – for example, in a village in Uttar Pradesh, there is a belief prevalent that if unmarried girls use sanitary pads and if dogs get access to those used pads, the girl will not get married or a family member will die. In Tamil Nadu, a tribe believes that their tribal deity will blind those who use sanitary napkins. It is a matter of pride for me that some women used the pads for three months and proved that no one lost their eyesight.

In the middle of all this, I had a divorce notice from my wife. She thought I was running behind medical college girls. With all my research, I realised that cotton that I used was not working – though it worked for a company. I realised that a special kind of cellulose derived from pinewood along with a processing plant would create the perfect product. With four years’ time, I made my own machine tools to make the pads. Today, with this machine, anyone can make a world-class sanitary napkin in their dining room. Once that was done, I did not apply for a patent or use it to run a business. I realised that I had the choice of being a philanthropist from the beginning itself – instead of running a business and then coming to philanthropy much later. This led me to give the machine out to poor women across India to use. With this, there have been many installations across 23 states in India, and many other countries.   

The only place where I could work on this favourably was at IIT. I left everything I owned and moved to Coimbatore. I donated blood for money, I lived in one room with five people for five years while I spent my time and effort developing the machine. By this time, my wife had already returned to her parental home. After my machine was made, I took it to IIT. The first thing I had was criticism. They said it was too simple – and that made me realise that people complicate things just to make it monetarily worthy and profit-worthy. But I was not daunted, simplicity was important because it had to be operable by women who had to make a livelihood with it.  They criticised my machine and even told me that it wouldn’t do well in comparison to western technology. I understood them, but I didn’t know enough English to respond. Then, I went to Madhubani in Bihar, where I took my first machine. It worked. From then on, I realised that it made a difference to reach the ones who needed it, and then to work in a way that would plug the need. 

I then started Jayaashree Industries, and began to work in the village and grass root level.
When the machine was made, I got a call from Unilever from their London office in 2011. They told me, “You succeeded in the domain that we failed in!” They asked me to share the secret with them. Even today, MNCs continue to call me. I have spoken at many companies like Google, Microsoft, IBM, Intel, and also with TED and INK. The National Innovation Foundation in Ahmedabad helped me get a patent for the product. I am not interested in selling my machine to MNCs or to corporate houses or to any private investors. I am not interested in exploiting the patent. I want to use the patent to empower women in India. I don’t want them to be workers. They should own this project. They deserve the empowerment. 

I won the award for the Best Innovation for the Betterment of Society from IIT Madras. I also got the National Innovation Foundation Award from President Pratibha Patil in 2005. There are about 2000 machines that we’ve made, and I’ve installed them across 26 states and 10 other countries. I sell my machines directly to rural women through the support of bank loans and NGOs. The machine operator can learn how to make a sanitary pad in just three hours and then employ three others to help with processing and distribution.

I don’t make much money by selling the machines. Most of my income comes from lectures that I take up abroad. I think we should start working for the rural sector and the emancipation of women very rigorously. How many stories of farmer suicides have you heard in the recent past? Wouldn’t something like these machines help the non-farming sector support the income of families that are heavily dependent on the farming sector? Just imagine this. About 12% of women in India use sanitary napkins. When rural women are given these machines, they can make sanitary pads that are affordable, and then sell them to their village and beyond. How much that can support a family that is otherwise agrarian! We can even prevent farmer suicides with such tools and implements. I am happy to tell you that we have almost 900 brands of sanitary napkins in rural India. Imagine how much it would benefit women and communities if we scaled it.

The greater power in this is that women become the vehicles of the effort – they can talk to other women, raise awareness on menstrual health and hygiene, and teach other women ways to keep their health safe. We are up against a social climate that is filled with taboos and dogmas around menstruation. It is first important to create awareness about menstruation and menstrual hygiene. There are so many superstitions about menstruation – for example, in a village in Uttar Pradesh, there is a belief prevalent that if unmarried girls use sanitary pads and if dogs get access to those used pads, the girl will not get married or a family member will die. In Tamil Nadu, a tribe believes that their tribal deity will blind those who use sanitary napkins. It is a matter of pride for me that some women used the pads for three months and proved that no one lost their eyesight.



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