The meaning of development from “The Menstrual Man”

I recently came across an intriguing article in the BBC on-line magazine entitled: ‘The Indian Sanitary Pad Revolutionary’.

It tells the ‘real life’ story of “A school dropout from a poor family in southern India [who] has revolutionised menstrual health for rural women in developing countries by inventing a simple machine they can use to make cheap sanitary pads.”

What made this captivating is that the revolutionary is a man and in particular of poor rural man in India – a country considered amongst one of the most patriarchal societies. It seems that we were all so captivated by this story that a movie was made about Arunachalam Muruganantham – the man behind the ‘sanitary pad revolution.’

“It all started with my wife,” he begins…. but I will let Arunachalam tell you about his journey of ‘menstrual’ stardom in his hilariously funny INK talk above (also on TED, but without the subtitles) about his invention, how it came about, and the numerous challenges he faced along the way.

Of worthier note, and the reason I was encouraged to write this blog, was not just to add to the FB and Twitter popularity that Arunachalam has accumulated, but to promote the wider life lessons from an individual who, in my view, has contributed significantly to women’s empowerment, singularly challenge multi-million dollar industry, and remind me of my environmental focus.

Dealing with the issue of sanitary pad consumption is not somewhere I really wanted to go.

At the forefront, in the current intensifying debate around gender and in particular focusing on male violence, the fact that Arunachalam is a man, is hugely significant. Not only is he male, but he’s discussing what are considered ‘women’s issues’ – and ones that we ourselves really don’t like talking about, not seriously anyway and certainly not in public. And he did this as a result of his own observations about sanitary hygiene in his home.

Here we have a rural, uneducated man (or ‘adult’ as he calls himself in the YouTube clip, which is also very telling about gender relations in India) interested in solving the woman’s menstrual ‘problem’.  The sight of a ‘nasty cloth’ that the majority of rural Indian women use for their ‘monthlys’ had him horrified, “I would not even use it to clean my 2 wheeler.”  He also didn’t realise that purchasing sanitary pads would interfere with the ‘household milk budget’, which he understood once he had tried to purchase (not easy for a man in India to do) a pack at a local store.

Surprised at the high cost for a product that ‘weighed in at only 10 grams’ and made from natural products, as a workshop worker he reckoned he could make the product cheaper himself. And so his journey began.

The process was a revelation for Arunachalam. He learned that fewer than 1 in 10 women utilised sanitary pads in his own and surrounding villages (findings were also reflected in a survey commissioned by the Indian Government in 2011 conducted by AC Nielsen that reported just 12% of women across India use sanitary pads).

He says that the reality in the rural areas is less than this, and that some women will use other unhygienic methods such as sand, sawdust, leaves or even ash:

“Women who do use cloths are often too embarrassed to dry them in the sun, which means they don’t get disinfected. Approximately 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene – it can also affect maternal mortality.”

Women during menstruation in India are considered ‘untouchable’ not being allowed to touch food or water, visit public places, etc.  It was hard even to broach the subject in such a conservative society.

“To speak to rural women, we need permission from the husband or father,” he says. “We can only talk to them through a blanket.”

Without giving too much away, Arunachalam’s research in developing his own sanitary pad embarked him on a ‘cycle’ of his own. Revelations that women’s cycles were ‘monthly’ hampered his ability to secure regular feedback on his invention, he had limited access to women willing to discuss and sample his inventions. Eventually it was too much for his family and Arunachalam found himself alone, “It was a problem for me…I had to cook my own food.”

Losing family, friends and face, Arunachalam was committed to his quest for an alternative, more affordable sanitary pad for rural women. After four-and-a-half years and through many challenges, he finally succeeded.

His goal was to create user-friendly technology, so he invented a small easy to use machine to break down the hard cellulose into 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.

Key to this was that it only takes an hour to train rural women in the use of the machines. Arunachalam’s invention was entered into a competition by the local technical college (without his knowledge) and won first prize for the national innovation award: “It was instant glory, media flashing in my face, everything” he says.

Arunachalam selected some of the poorest states in Northern India to launch his machines. Over time and overcoming many myths and fears surrounding the use of sanitary pads in these areas the machines spread tod some 1,300 villages in 23 states. Each business is owned by the women, who produce and sell directly to the consumer, which also enables bartering for those women unable to pay with cash.

A manual machine costs around 75,000 Indian rupees (€897). Each machine supports 3,000 women with sanitary pads and provides employment for 10 women. The women are able to produce between 200-250 pads a day which sell for an average of about 2.5 rupees (€0.029) each. In continuing his commitment to rural women’s empowerment, Arunachalam also works with schools. He says that 23% of girls drop out of education once they start menstruating, so he has included school girls in making their own pads: “Why wait till they are women? Why not empower girls?”

Not surprisingly, the Indian government announced it would distribute subsidised sanitary products to poorer women, rather than support Arunachalam. However, with continued NGO support, he is focused on creating “one million jobs for poor women – but why not 10 million jobs worldwide?” He is planning to expand his empowerment package to 106 countries globally, including Kenya, Nigeria, Mauritius, the Philippines, and Bangladesh.

Inventing and patenting the only low-cost sanitary making machine in the world could have earned Arunachalam much money. As he says himself: “Anyone with an MBA would immediately accumulate the maximum money.” Yet profit maximisation was not his goal, rather it was to increase the affordable supply and use of sanitary pads to women in rural areas and to create jobs for them. He lives a modest lifestyle with his family and has no desire to accumulate possessions:

“I have accumulated no money but I accumulate a lot of happiness,” he says. “If you get rich, you have an apartment with an extra bedroom – and then you die.”

When you hear the story of Arunachalam you can’t help but be amazed at his idealism, commitment and impact on the ground, in particular on development issues that generally don’t grab men’s attention. His life provides a wonderful opportunity and entry point for educators to engage with a whole set of human development issues. He touches issues such as gender, masculinities, women’s rights, poverty, corruption, rural development, culture, empowerment, he challenges the boundaries of patriarchy and societal gender norms, plus much more.

For me, Arunachalam’s story forced me to consider the environmental aspect of his invention. I had never stopped to think about how sanitary pads were made, who made them, what were they made of – and in particular how we dispose of them?  I was horrified by what I found out.

It seems that in the quest to satisfy our need for items to get smaller and thinner, the materials used to make sanitary pads means using less wood-based pulp and more synthetic material made from petroleum. Added to this are bleaching agents, additives and synthetic materials – all harmful to humans and the environment.

One US congresswoman even sought to legislate for labelling and side effects on the packaging of all sanitary pads. Of course, this didn’t happen. Similar materials are used in baby wipes, tumble dryer clothes, nappies, moist toilet tissues, etc. The majority of these end up in landfill sites, flushed out to sea or incinerated (also not without its environmental impact).

Predictably, the EU and the US consumption of this type of product is the highest in the world – a third of the 45 billion units of sanitary pads that are consumed worldwide.  In the UK alone, it has been estimated that a giant hole some 300 feet wide by 300 feet deep would be needed to dispose of these – and it would take between 500-800 years for them to decompose!

In the UK, bathroom rubbish cleaned up along shorelines showed a 40% increase. In the US the Center for Marine Conservation reported over 170,000 tampons were collected along coastal areas between 1998-9. During the same period, some 6.5 billion tampons and 13.5 billion sanitary pads and their packaging, ended up in landfills or sewer systems.

These facts are probably glaringly obvious, but one I really didn’t want to know. Now I do, so what next?

Well, there are alternatives available. There is Natracare that make available biodegradable products which can be bought in health shops throughout Ireland and on-line. There are ‘reusable’ products available in all colours and shapes (I don’t know anyone personally that has tried these though!).

And there’s also lobbying for information and awareness around the medical and environmental hazards of current brands. Multi-laterals won’t change unless we do first.