He wore menstrual pads and a bag with animal blood to see how sanitary napkins worked, so he could make some for his wife. They were poor, and it was for love that Arunachalam Muruganantham did what other men would never imagine doing.
In the end, the 52-year-old school dropout achieved more than what he initially set out to do. With his invention, a machine that produces cheap sanitary pads, he is transforming the lives of many women in the developing world.
His path led him not only to challenge powerful multinational corporations that control the “feminine hygiene” market in his country but also to question the inequality of the world, where a few get rich and the vast majority stay poor.
From the city of Coimbatore in southern India, Muruganantham compared the corporate model of doing business in the world to a mosquito: in order to survive, it has to “suck blood”.
“You can create profit, but there is no method to share the wealth among all the people,” Muruganantham told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
According to him, the world needs to spread prosperity through social enterprises that utilize some of the methods used by traditional businesses. It’s the model that Muruganantham adheres to. Instead of selling sanitary napkins (which he can produce at a tenth of the cost of commercial brands), his company provides his machines to women at a low cost through loans provided by either banks or nonprofits.
With each set of machines, a woman can employ three others, creating a small-scale business at the community level.
In contrast to the conventional corporate model, he believes that social entrepreneurship is benevolent.
“Social entrepreneurship is like a butterfly, sucking honey from a flower, but the flower won’t die,” Muruganantham said. “They’re helping the flower to make pollination.”
According to the self-taught inventor, his machines are used not only in India but also in several other countries in Asia and Africa.
In farming communities, alternative sources of income could be a lifesaver. “Farming is related to water. So whenever the rain fails, the farmer commits suicide,” he said. “India and other developing nations need non–farm-sector activity. So what we are doing, we are giving small microbusiness to the rural women, especially the farmers’ wives.”
Because of poverty and taboos around menstruation, millions of women in the world are denied access to hygiene products and services.
Muruganantham became committed to making cheap pads when he discovered that his wife was using rags because she couldn’t afford commercial products.
Vancouverite Madeleine Shaw knows a lot about the issues faced by many women around menstrual-hygiene management, notably in poor countries. The fashion designer has been working in this field for more than 20 years: she cofounded and is currently the creative director of Lunapads, a Vancouver-based company that makes reusable alternatives to disposable pads and tampons.
Shaw noted that there is a direct correlation between the availability of affordable menstrual products and a woman’s education and economic independence.
“It impacts their school attendance, particularly in the developing world,” Shaw told the Straight in a phone interview. “It’s hard enough to make sure the girls get educated in the first place. It’s a meaningful barrier that they face, and it’s also one that’s relatively easy to address.”
Shaw said that in many cases, girls and women resort to unhygienic means to manage their menstrual flow, from ripped up old newspapers to tree bark and mud, sometimes leading to infections.
In addition to having to skip school because of their monthly periods, many women in other countries are further marginalized because of taboos regarding menstruation.
“The idea is that menstruation is something that is inherently unclean and even disgusting,” Shaw said. “So often women are barred from attending any kind of religious event or even setting foot in a temple or a church.”
Like Muruganantham, Shaw is interested in social enterprises. Her company helped start Afripads in Uganda, mentoring the startup in making washable pads.
Shaw’s Lunapads is also one of the supporters of Menstrual Man: The Eccentric Visionary, a talk to be delivered by Muruganantham as part of this year’s Indian Summer Festival in Vancouver.
The event is presented by the Canada-India Network Society, a nonprofit that builds ties between the two countries through health-related initiatives. Its president, Dr. Arun Garg, is the director of the Fraser Health Authority’s laboratory medicine and pathology program.
According to Garg, Muruganantham empowered many women, especially in rural India, by making sanitary napkins available at a low cost.
“Proper sanitation reduces infection and, with that, complications of infection,” Garg told the Straight in a phone interview.
Canadian women may not have the same kinds of problems as some women elsewhere, but it still took a while for the federal government here to remove the tax on menstrual-hygiene products: the measure took effect on July 1 this year.
Arunachalam Muruganantham will speak at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts (149 West Hastings Street) next Thursday (July 16) at 5 p.m.