Arunachalam Muruganantham: India’s Pad Man

Written by Chad Echakowitz

Being a woman is hard. I cannot say this from personal experience, but being a feminist, I can see what a nightmare life can be for women all over the world. For some, it is easier than others. For others, such as the women of India, it is much harder than it is for most. Menstruation is something that most, if not all, women have to undergo every month from puberty. It is a biological process as natural as breathing. Yet it still carries a massive taboo in India, so much so that one in five women drop out of school due to their menstruation. Only ten to twenty percent of India’s women have access to proper menstrual hygiene products, leaving over 300 million women to use old rags and cloth when menstruating. Proper hygiene products are grossly overpriced. However, nothing is done about it because of the social stigma attached to menstruation.

But then, in 1998, Arunachalam Muruganantham of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu began a revolution. Shortly after marrying his wife, Shanthi, Muruganantham noticed that She would gather up old rags whenever she was about to begin her period. When Muruganantham asked her about this, and asked why she did not buy proper hygienic pads, she said it was too expensive. As a sentimental gift to his wife, he bought her some proper pads, but he could only afford one pack. Muruganantham was outraged by this, knowing that the majority of impoverished Indian women could not afford the pads. So began his journey in to creating and supplying the rural areas of India with affordable sanitary pads.

At first, Muruganantham used cotton as the base material for the pads, wrapping shredded cotton around a cotton-padded sheet. He tested this pad on his sisters and wife. After months of trials, the pads continued to fail. They were not absorbent enough, nor were they comfortable for wearing on a day-to-day basis.  The work was slow, seeing as menstruation usually only occurs once a month. After months of frustration and social embarrassment, Shanthi left him to go live with her mother, and she and Muruganantham’s sisters went back to using old rags.

But this did not deter Muruganantham. Instead, he created an artificial uterus and connected it to a sanitary pad he wore in his own underpants. He organized to collect sheep and cow blood from a local butcher to simulate the blood flow that occurs during menstruation. He was ridiculed and ostracized by his village for his experiments once it was discovered that he was wearing sanitary pads. The taboo that surrounds periods and menstruation is so systemic in India that the shame Muruganantham had brought upon himself should have stopped all his work, but it didn’t. Instead, for two long years he altered and manipulated and tested his sanitary pads, finally leading to a breakthrough.

One day, after ordering tester samples from one of the large industrial sanitary pad producing companies, he found a box lying by his front door. This box, filled with those samples, had been ripped apart by his dog. The remains of the sanitary pads were strewn everywhere. But this unfortunate mishap lead Muruganantham to discover the material used inside sanitary pads: Cellulose fibers derived from Pine bark wood pulp. After this discovery, it took Muruganantham another four years to develop a way to process and produce these cheap sanitary pads made of absorbent Cellulose material.

Finally, he developed a machine that only cost $950 to make. The machine would grind, de-fibrate, press and then sterilize the pads under ultraviolet light, before packaging them for sale. To give some prospective, a machine made by a big sanitary pad company costs, on average, $500,000 to make. To date, Muruganantham has sold over 1300 machines in 27 of the 29 States of India. He refuses to sell them to big companies, solely selling them to women’s self-help groups and other rural Indian women. His goal was to provide cheap sanitary pads to all the women of India, and at a third of the price of normal sanitary pads, he has done so.

In 2014, Muruganantham was named one of Times’ 100 most influential people, and in 2016 he was awarded the Padma Shri by the Indian Government. This is the fourth highest award given to the members of the public for their distinguished contribution to India. There is also a documentary about his life and work directed by Amit Virmani. Additionally, he has given many lectures about his work at Universities such as Harvard. Muruganantham wants to now start distributing his machines internationally, helping other underdeveloped countries throughout the world.

There is no question about it: wherever you are in the world, female hygiene products are way too expensive. This is not a rant about how unfair it is to be a woman, or how the world favours men. Though that is true, this issue is about the economic predicament women find themselves in every month. People like Muruganantham are not accepting the status quo. They are refusing to let these archaic prejudices stand. And we must therefore ask ourselves: if this is changing in India, why are things not changing in our countries?