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Menstrual Man: The Sanitary Pad Movement Sweeping Across India

Menstrual Man is a documentary that details how one dropout-turned-entrepreneur revolutionized menstrual sanitation for women in developing nations.

Arunachalam Muruganantham’s interest in the state of menstrual hygiene in India began in 1998 when he discovered that his wife was using dirty rags in place of sanitary napkins to save money for food. According to the BBC, nearly 70 percent of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene, and Muruganantham was shocked to discover that the simple cotton pads that could alleviate this problem were selling for 40 times the price that it cost to produce them. “I thought to myself, white substance, made of cotton… oh my God, that guy is just using a penny value of raw material—inside they are selling for pounds, dollars! Why not make a local sanitary pad for my new wife? That’s how all this started,” Muruganantham explained in a Ted Talk in Bangalore.

Muruganantham began creating his own sanitary pads and asked local women for feedback but found they were unwilling or unreliable. He created a wearable contraption that would pump goat blood to stimulate menstruation so he could test the absorption of his napkins himself. “I became the man who wore a sanitary pad,” he says. His village forced him to leave, believing he was possessed by evil spirits, and his wife and mother left him.

Muruganantham’s sanitary pads were not as effective as he had hoped, but he refused to give up. He studied samples sent to him from manufacturing companies and realized he needed a machine to break down blocks of cellulose. He spent the next four years designing a cheap wooden machine that produces sanitary pads in a process that can be learned in an hour. The machines cost between $1,200 and $6,000—much cheaper than the several thousand dollar machines used by big corporations. He built 250 in a year and a half, bringing them to 1,300 villages in the poorest states in Northern India.

The machines are typically bought by self-help groups and NGOs. Each one provides jobs for ten rural women, who produce and sell the sanitary pads for self-determined prices. The simple design of the machines means the women can maintain them locally and operate them with ease. Although he could have patented the machine for profit, Muruganantham offered his design in an open-source format. “I don’t want to make this as a corporate entity. I want to make this as a local sanitary pad movement across the globe,” he explains. “If anyone runs after money, their life will not [have] any beauty. . . . I have accumulated no money but I accumulate a lot of happiness.” With his newfound credibility, Muruganantham’s family returned to him and they were able to rejoin his village.

Muruganantham is planning to send his machines to 106 developing nations across the globe. The documentary Menstrual Man was released last May and is currently available on iTunes, with DVDs forthcoming.

Photo by Amit Virmani.