By Shambhavi Saxena:
Ever hear about the guy who made his own bleeding uterus? Oh, this isn’t a set-up for a joke, I’m serious. Following his marriage to his wife Shanthi in 1998, Arunachalam Muruganantham learned about menstruation for the first time. With that, he learned a bunch of other things too – that menstruation is still considered unmentionable, that sanitary pad giants like Whisper and Stayfree cater only to 12% of Indian women, and that in his own village less than one-tenth of the women use sanitary napkins.
What was that bit about a bleeding uterus, you ask? Well, when he found out his wife had been sacrificing her menstrual health needs so as not to deplete household expenses, he sought to create an alternative to the expensive sanitary napkins being sold in markets. When he started ‘meddling’ with sanitary napkins, his wife left him to his own devices. With nobody willing to test his product or give him reliable feedback he decided to build a working menstrual apparatus for himself, and see if his product cut it. And that’s how he became the first man to wear a sanitary napkin.
Today he is successfully running the self-sustaining sanitary napkin business, Jayashree Industries. It has 2003 units across India, including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, employing 21,000 women. For his innovation and efforts, he was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2014.
Arunachalam Muruganantham spoke to Youth Ki Awaaz about his business model, the growth of his project, and his initial struggle, combating fear, lack of awareness and general misconceptions surrounding menstruation.
Shambhavi Saxena (SS): In the beginning, your curiosity about sanitary napkins was met with negative reactions from your family and members of your community. Why do you think that happened?
Arunachalam Muruganantham (AM): The subject of my work, menstruation, is a taboo in urban India as well as rural villages. People thought I was using it as a trump card to roam behind women. The villagers suspected I became a vampire in the evening, drinking girls’ blood! They wanted to tie me upside down to a tree, but once I succeeded in my task, the whole village changed its tune. They said, “We knew Muruga would do something (good), because his forehead is very wide!” Initially they wanted to exclude me from society – they were beating me and scolding me. My friends would change their route on the road if they saw me coming. My wife left, my mother left. Everyone asked me “Why do you never give up?”
SS: Despite facing such backlash from your community, why did you never give up?
AM: I am doing research in engineering. Even if I fail 999 times, I will still try 1000 times, because all it takes is changing the angle of the blade. That’s the power of engineering and science. If you rely on luck and speculation, you will have to give up. The younger generation should appreciate science and technology. Unnecessarily people get into spirituality – it is a messy area. People should do that only when they’re 60 years old, not when they are young.
SS: How are your sanitary napkins different from the ones manufactured by multinational corporations like Proctor & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson etc.? Can your business compete with them?
AM: When you use the word ‘multinational’, it means ‘making profits’, not social change. Because the corporate model is this – people put in their investments, and profits have to be made. There is no other way. And so nothing is going to change. Look at what has happened with Maggi! They never bothered about the effects on people. They make profits. That’s why they always complicate their products, whether it’s a facial cream or a phone. I would say, avoid corporations and buy small. Even sanitary napkins should be uncomplicated. If a man has a running nose, he needs a hanky and cotton. In the same way, menstruating women need some absolving agents for their body discharge, that’s all.
Because these products are created and sold in a male dominated space, no one can question them. Since 1932, it has been a profit-driven, multi-million dollar business created in the West after the First World War. Now, suddenly, an illiterate from a small Indian village takes up the mission of producing sanitary napkins! Rural women are able to make the same product. It is not a substitute but a product that can compete with these big companies. See how the shopping industry is manipulated by Pepsi and Coke? In the same way, this industry is manipulated by companies like Proctor & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson. To manufacture sanitary napkins you need to process the cotton with a multi-million dollar machine. But, you can use the same raw material and process with a smaller machine. I don’t want to get into the stupidity of a conventional profit-making business model. India doesn’t need another Ambani. I’m a social entrepreneur. I’m speaking to you and working from a rental house. Having your own house or your own factory is not important, but creating social impact is very important. There are 869 brands in India, and we are competing with them. That’s why our story has become viral.
SS: Why do you think your sanitary napkin business is better for Indians?
AM: If you go to the Bureau of Indian Standards, you’ll find that with 99% of the products we use in India, the standardization has been given by Europe and America. What a silly thing! I am fighting to change the standardization. If you create a product for -22° centigrade weather in Chicago, no way is it going to work in Rajasthan’s 32° centigrade weather. I’m trying to make what the women in my country need. If I succeed, there will be greater awareness.
For girls, menstruation is not like opening a tap from day 1 to day 7. It differs from woman to woman, girl to girl, and day to day. So why are big companies packing eight or ten napkins of the same size?
Women are making customized pads for other women. A woman can approach a female employee and say “I have heavy flow only on the second day,” and can then receive two thick napkins, three medium and four thinners ones. We only use natural materials, with no chemicals involved. We provide utmost comfort and our product is completely biodegradable. The products in the market are synthetic, loaded with chemicals, and can make the wearers’ thighs indigo or black.
In the advertisements, you will see a girl in tight jeans running and jumping. It is marketed as a comfort product, not connected to personal hygiene. The ads don’t talk about how messy it is. They call them long lasting. It’s misleading. No napkin should be used more than four hours – ask any gynaecologist, they will tell you.
AM: Nobody is willing to talk about this sort of thing. Why? They won’t elaborate. They may say “yes”, “no”, “okay”, but they will not give details. But eventually I was able to get and study used sanitary napkins. The napkin itself will speak to me, when people refuse to talk. This was the last straw for my mother, though! After this, she ran away from me.
SS: You said that you were not aware of female menstruation until you married your wife, Shanthi. Do you think it is important for boys and girls to receive education about this at school and at home?
AM: We had an open toilet in the backyard of our home. I remember my younger sister using this when she had her periods. Being an adolescent, I always ran away from there, and never knew what was happening. When I married my wife, again I saw this same secretive behaviour from her. This was the first time I actually raised any questions. I think girls should definitely receive education about this. For boys, it is not needed, they should just understand. But husbands should learn.
SS: You have taken your business to the BIMARU states. How has it benefited the women there?
AM: I come from a family of weavers. We purchased a wooden handloom machine for Rs. 3000, thirty years ago, and we have made cloth, sold and survived on this. In the same way, I developed the sanitary napkin making machine for women. I don’t want to rub shoulders with multinationals. I want to create livelihood. I took the machine from Tamil Nadu to Bihar, to Madhubani district. This was the real trial period for my technology. Slowly, for three years, I travelled to these states. No one really knew what I was doing. And then suddenly BBC and CNN picked up the story.
SS: Is India’s conservative attitude towards the human body responsible for poor menstrual health in the country?
AM: Definitely! When women don’t use sanitary towels, two main reasons are availability and affordability. We found that there is also a third reason – awareness, which is missing among many people. They think they are saving Rs 20 by not purchasing sanitary napkins, when they are unwittingly incurring Rs. 20,000 in medical problems! They suppress and suffer for decades! Many women at the age of 35 have had to have their uteruses removed because of poor menstrual health. I remember the story of a young girl who hanged herself from a tree because she mistook menstruation for an unwanted pregnancy. Poor awareness cost a young girl her life. Because of menstrual problems, girls are unable to go to school, write their examinations or graduate. If they don’t graduate, how can they be empowered? Ministers often focus on empowering women, when they should be focusing on girls first. What we are doing with the sanitary napkins is inclusive development – creating livelihood, hygiene and empowerment.