Arunachalam Muruganantham (centre) and the machine he invented to make sanitary towels.
Photograph: Jayaashree Industries
Once every two months or so I find myself standing in the pharmacy glaring resentfully at the huge array of sanitary products available and thinking, “Why do I have to waste so much of my money on these things? Men don’t have to pay for this – it’s so unfair!”
Maybe it is; but I am grateful that I have never had to choose between buying sanitary products and food. This is the reality for many women across the developing world. A survey conducted by A C Neilsen called ‘Sanitation protection: Every Woman’s Health Right’ in October 2010 revealed that over 88% of India’s menstruating women could not afford to buy sanitary protection and resorted to using ashes, newspapers, dried leaves, and even husk sand during their periods. Using such unhygienic materials has an appalling effect on women’s health, with over 70% of the women surveyed suffering from some kind of Reproductive Tract Infection. As if this wasn’t enough, girls in the age group of 12-18 years miss 5 days of school in a month and 23% drop out of school after they start menstruating. In the Hindu faith (as is the case with many other faiths), it is broadly accepted that menstrual blood is culturally polluting and that the menstruating woman must be separated from her family for the first three days of her period.
Getting your period is a pain, sometimes literally. But no girl should ever be made to feel ashamed or afraid of her body. The taboo surrounding menstruation means that educating girls on the importance of proper sanitary protection is difficult, even if they could then afford the sanitary towels. There is hope however; as well as a government scheme to offer affordable sanitary towels to girls aged 10-19 years, a company called Jayaashree Industries is now providing rural women with the means to manufacture low-cost sanitary towels, thus providing them with both improved health and an income. The founder of the company, Arunachalam Muruganantham, was inspired to begin his research into creating a low cost way to manufacture sanitary towels after discovering his wife attempting to bury the filthy rags she used as sanitary protection. His research led him to be ostracised by his local community; even his wife and mother left him. Now there are over 600 of his machines across India, providing women with income and safe sanitary protection.
I find this kind of grass-roots social change exciting and inspiring to hear about, but does it do enough? Muruganantham says his “greatest compliment” came from a woman who told him that thanks to his machines, she was now able to send her daughter to school; the first woman to have made enough money to do so in the history of her community. He may have only set out to provide the women he loved with basic sanitary health, but Muruganantham has also brought hope to a new generation of Indian girls and that is certainly something to celebrate.
Girl Museum Inc.