In sex ed I was taught about menstruation. I was sent home with sanitary napkin samples and tampon samples wrapped in cheery, bubbly packaging that was excitedly embellished with glitter and hot pink. I was given the same information every single year, so that I honestly had no excuse if I didn’t know what to do by the time my period rolled around. This is common in the United States. But as the documentary film, Menstrual Man (2014, available on Vimeo) highlights, the attitudes surrounding menstruation are very different and much less positive in India.
Menstrual Man tells the story of a man, Arunachalam Muruganantham, who was concerned for his wife’s well being, and rightly so. In India, a woman on her period is seen as untouchable, dirty and shameful. Menstruation is rarely discussed openly either at home or at school. Only 1 in 10 menstruating women in India use pads. Since all washing is done in public, women are ashamed to wash the cloths they use or even just lay them in the sun to dry. Instead, the women hide used cloths inside their homes out of embarrassment, resulting in cloths that never properly dry and become laden with bacteria. This has caused severe health and hygiene problems for women across India: 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene, and indirectly, maternal mortality death is also associated with poor menstrual hygiene.
Muruganantham’s journey began when he found his wife handling her period by reusing rags, which he knew was dangerous to her health. He decided to find a way to make pads for her since the ones that were available were too expensive for the family to afford. Over the next decade, Muruganantham’s concern for his wife’s access to hygienic sanitary napkins ballooned into a journey to increase menstruation education and accessibility to cheap and safe sanitary napkins to the women of India.
He designed a very simple machine that can reliably and effectively be used to make affordable, safe sanitary napkins, which he installs in rural areas of India. Employing women at all of them, he also creates sustainable jobs for women in areas where opportunities for female employment is otherwise limited. The machines are very simple, reducing service needs and allowing employees to troubleshoot issues themselves.
So far, Muruganantham has supplied 643 machines across 23 states in India. Each machine requires the employment of about ten women, meaning thousands of women now have jobs that didn’t exist before. And thousands more now have access to affordable sanitary napkins. The inventor says his goal is to make sanitary pads available to all of rural India. He also wants to create jobs for no less than one million poor women. He states “If you ask politicians or economists, ‘what is important for a country’ the economists might say currency, gold mines, offshore drilling… I say just empower women. It is nothing but empowering the country.”
When my friends and I huddled together on the bus in middle school, giggling about the Kotex samples we had been given in sex ed, we had no idea how incredibly fortunate we were. It is still hard for me to conceive of a world where pads aren’t a guarantee, but after watching Menstrual Man, the monthly trip down the ‘feminine care’ aisle is a slightly different, more humbling experience.
Photos courtesy of BBC World News.