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India's women given low-cost route to sanitary protection

Few Indian women can afford sanitary towels. But one social entrepreneur aims to change that, and provide an income too.

Photo of Karan Sancheti
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Detail story of Arunchalam Muruganantham's road to creating the world's first low-cost machine for making sanitary towels:

Muruga’s full name is Arunchalam Muruganantham but he is better known as Menstrual Man. He is a one-off, and his story is enchanting: who else would have tested their own sanitary pad design by taking a football bladder, filling it with goat blood, then wearing it for weeks? “I became like a woman,” he tells me in his factory in Coimbatore, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. “Always checking behind me, to check for staining.”

A sanitary pad protest in Kolkata, India. The message reads ‘Menstruation is not an illness’. Photograph: Arindam Shivaani.

Muruga’s low-cost sanitary pad machine is famous now, as is he. There are 1,300 machines installed across India and they have also been exported to 17 other countries. Muruga has been installed as India’s best-known sanitary pad revolutionary.

Since Modi launched his Clean India campaign in 2014, menstruation has crept into the limelight, and not just in India. With an increase in awareness, two statistics are frequently quoted: up to 23% of Indian girls drop out of school when they reach puberty; and nearly 90% of Indian women don’t use sanitary pads – instead, they use rags, ashes, newspaper, sand. This is presented as ignorant and dangerous.

Research by Unicef India in Bihar and Jharkhand found that while 85% of girls were using cloth as a menstrual absorbent, 65% knew what sanitary pads were, because they had seen ads for them on TV. Their reasons for avoiding them range from lack of money to not knowing how to use them. Ignorance about periods in general is definitely shocking: 83% of girls in the same Unicef study had no idea what to expect when they started bleeding, and nearly half missed school because of menstruation. 

All the women changed their pads or cloth only twice a day: once in the morning and once at night, no matter how heavy the flow.

Now the likes of Menstrual Man and Modi have got menstrual hygiene out in the open in India, it’s time to get braver and broader with solutions, and to confront the sanitary pad waste footprint. Otherwise one problem will be substituted for another, and the sanitary pad revolution will be as false as every advert for feminine hygiene products, all unrealistic white trousers and stupid blue goo.

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Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Thanks Karan Sancheti for sharing the story of Muruganantham. I am always inspired by his work - not only his human-centered design approach to the issue, but also his systemic approach to the issue (e.g. creating machines that women in villages can operate, repair and make a living out of while also providing access to cheaper sanitary pads). I think it's a great inspiration for this challenge. It reminds me the approach Isaac Jumba  with t-safe