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The Remarkable Story Of The Man Who Wore A Sanitary Napkin To Help Women Across The Country

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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.

arunachalam muruganantham 1

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.

SS: When you required feedback on your product, you approached the girls at your local medical college. Instead of actively participating, they did not bother to give you honest, individual feedback. Why do you think women are so reluctant to take their own menstrual health seriously?

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.

You must be to comment.
  1. Ra’s al Ghul

    What is up with these make-believe interviews?

  2. Vidisha

    I commend the effort towards making an everyday product- cheap and affordable. Also to act upon the taboo around femininity. But innovation at the cost of what? Sanitary Napkins are not a healthy option and the amount of debris produced by disposable napkins is very high. When it comes to innovation and an action towards the betterment of communities and ecology, reusable products are better options. The menstural cup is one good product. And if it is about a development at lower income community level one should look at Uger. http://www.jatansansthan.org/uger/about-uger/

  3. Jinoj K

    Hi I am a consultant specialized in disposal sanitary products like Sanitary napkin, Baby diaper etc., I visited many of this type napkin manufacturing unit as a consultant. In kerala many Kudumbashree (www.kudumbashree.org) units started this production unit and now they are under financial trouble and they are finding some solution to repay the loan amount to bank. I was so impressed in his talk but the reality is shocking, he supplied very low quality raw materials in high price and many of that materials is actually not maid for sanitary napkin.

    I agreed his machine is good for making belted maternity pad but not for regular napkins.

    Now I am working on it and trying to find some solutions for solving many women’s financial problems because of this napkin revolution.

    If any suggestion please share with me jinoj@optimizeconsultancy.com

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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