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The Man Who Wore A Sanitary Napkin

Arunachalam Muruganatham is a happy man. He has an easy smile which always reaches his eyes. His enthusiastic way of speaking has his audience hanging on to every word. His face bears no lasting imprint of what he has endured. It is hard to accept, from one look at this jovial man, that he was served a divorce notice by his wife, abandoned by his mother, and cast out of his own village. All for venturing too close to a subject that is considered taboo for women themselves to broach – menstruation.

To a layman, it can be considerably hard to identify the problems associated with menstruation not being an easy topic of discussion. It is a natural process that women go through and they probably know how to deal with it. The truth however is far from this assumption. A government commissioned study conducted in 2011 concluded that only 12 percent of women across India use sanitary napkins. This percentage falls even lower when rural areas are considered exclusively.  It is the reason behind the lack of use of pads that are especially disheartening. The primary cause is the cost of the pads itself. These napkins manufactured by multinational companies cut steeply into the household budget in rural homes. Another reason is their availability in shops with male shopkeepers. Women don’t buy them out of sheer embarrassment. For Muruga’s wife, Shanthi, it was the first of the two. He first broached this matter when he caught her hiding something behind her back. On his insistence, she showed him the object in question. It was a dirty blood- stained rag. On being asked about why she didn’t just buy sanitary napkins, she said that their daily milk and rations would have to be compromised for it. Like Shanthi, several women resort to the use of unhygienic items ranging from rags and sawdust to ashes in order to stem the flow of blood. This is very dangerous as these alternatives can cause reproductive tract infections which can even lead to death.

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Muruga decided to buy her a packet of pads anyway. It was when the shopkeeper looked both ways in embarrassment and started wrapping it in newspaper that Muruga began to see the true extent of the problem. This wasn’t just about the cost. It was about the collective opinion of society as well.

It began to bother him to a large extent. “Do I need an American to make a sanitary napkin for my wife or sister?” asks a vexed Muruga in a documentary titled ‘The Menstrual Man’. He embodied the spirit of ‘Make in India’ far before it became a trend. Being a school dropout, he had very little scientific knowledge, but he decided to try anyway. He bought a giant roll of cotton, divided it into segments, and made his own pad. His wife though was displeased with the results. He set out to sample different types of cotton in different formations. Although, it was becoming increasingly difficult to test his models as his wife became irritable at the idea of using his models, and he’d have to wait for month-long periods for her menstrual cycle to start. He decided to take an unprecedented risk, and he approached several medical students to try his pads and give him feedback. That venture didn’t last very long as the girls were too shy to give him any constructive feedback.

Muruga found himself at a crossroad. He could either abandon the idea or do something unheard of. He could test the pads on himself. He chose the latter. It was a choice that would cost him his reputation as well as his family. He filled animal blood into a football bladder and attached it through a tube to a sanitary napkin. Every time he pressed the bladder, it would leak blood. As he went around on his bicycle, people would whisper about the blood stains on his dhoti and the foul odor emanating from him.  As they watched him wash his blood stained clothes at the public well, many rumors surfaced. The most prominent ones were of him being a pervert or his carrying some kind of potent sexually transmitted disease. The worst blow however came when his wife left him. “A divorce notice was the first accolade for my research,” says a smiling Muruga in a documentary by Al Jazeera.

“I thought my leaving him would bring him to his senses,” says Shanthi in the same documentary. His reaction to her choice was the exact opposite of what she had thought. He invited his mother to stay with him and carried on his research with increased seriousness. His next move was to collect several used napkins to analyze their absorption capability. Seeing used pads laid out in their backyard was more than what his mother could take. She packed up her belongings and left the very same day. He’d lost his wife and his mother. His village was next on the list. Villagers insisted that he accept treatment for him being possessed by evil spirits. He refused and was left with only one choice. To leave the only place he’d ever known.

Muruga refused to give up till he’d found a viable solution. He knew that if he were to give up, this matter would lie unaddressed for years to come and several women would be at the risk of infection. He went on to develop a primitive wooden machine that would manufacture the right kind of napkin. He collaborated with IIT Madras where he was initially faced with blatant skepticism. That however wasn’t a problem. If he’d learnt anything in the past few years, it had been to stand up to skepticism with perseverance. They went onto tweak the design and it also won the president’s award for innovation.

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Things started looking up for Muruga after this as several states approached him for his machine design. At roughly 60,000 rupees, it was far cheaper than its million dollar alternates. Another aspect he’d kept in mind while designing it was the ease of use of the machine. He’d wanted the pads to be manufactured by women so as to allow them a means of employment. This need probably stemmed from watching his single mother struggle to bring up four sons on a daily wage laborer’s meager income. Today, his machine is in active use in over twenty states. Women manufacture these hygienic and low cost pads themselves. He vouches that he will never sell the design to a company because it would defeat the purpose with which he began this venture.

On seeing his phone number in a magazine with his interview in it, Shanthi called him. They talked for hours and she returned to his side. Today, they work together as one indivisible unit. She accompanies him to meetings with villagers and explains the use of the pads and its advantages.

Indian school girls stand before the sanitary pad machine

In several speeches, Muruga brings up his education. He claims that had he been educated, he would have been too scared to take this on. Why did it take a school dropout from Coimbatore to resolve a matter that affected women across the subcontinent? Had he been educated, it might have taken him less time, but would he have broached the matter in the first place? It is hard to argue with his sentiment but one has to wonder, is it just that he has far more courage than the rest?

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