'Menstrual Man' speaks on finding a simple solution to a global problem

Most Indian women can’t afford sanitary pads so school dropout Arunachalam Muruganantham built a small machine that can produce them at a fraction of the cost. He shares his story at SFU's Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on July 16 as part of the Indian Summer Festival.

 


Arunachalam Muruganantham is effecting real change for rural women in India.
Arunchalam Muruganantham, a.k.a. 'Menstrual Man'. Photo courtesy Indian Summer Festival.

Over 85 per cent of women in India lack access to affordable menstrual hygiene. Cultural shame surrounding menstruation discourages women who use cloths from disinfecting them by drying in the sun. And the same cultural shame keeps girls home from school for several days a month or more.

As a result, over 70 per cent of female reproductive disease in India is attributed to poor menstrual hygiene. The cost of inadequate access to good hygiene can be measured in women's lives, reproductive health, and their access to education.

Enter Arunachalam Muruganantham, a school dropout from southern India, now celebrated globally as Menstrual Man. Arunachalam, armed with nothing but indefatigable resolve, set about to create a sanitary pad that his wife could afford. In so doing he developed a small machine that could be operated and maintained by and for illiterate women in small villages.

It’s been close to two decades since the Menstrual Man began his life’s work, and today his frugal innovation is a vast business that employs over 20,000 women in rural India. His products are now available in more than 17 other countries and while financial speculators have valued his enterprise at over a billion dollars, Arunachalam, who is obstinately opposed to scaling up, preferring instead to branch out, maintains the same lifestyle and has no plans to turn his company into “a foolish corporation."

Arunachalam will be in Vancouver as part of the Indian Summer Festival speaking at SFU's Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on July 16. Tickets are available at the festival website

In a free-wheeling chat, Arunachalam spoke about his sanitary pad revolution: 

Nitant Narang: How did the sanitary pad revolution start?

Arunachalam: It all started with my wife. I found out that she had no access to proper sanitary care. Later I realized that women in my family, my village and the rest of rural India had to face the same problem.

NN: Why hadn’t this issue come to the forefront earlier? Why hadn’t someone else conceived of low-cost alternatives earlier? 

Arunachalam: I’m no intellectual; I’m a simple man. I think the way education is utilized, it is very useful in sending man to the moon but it hasn’t found solutions to crucial problems that affect billions of lives. I had little education and when faced with a big problem, I did not intellectualize it. I think the moment you step out of the Harvards, the MITs, you look at life through an intellectual lens. I did not have this lens, I saw only reality in front of me. I’ve met professors who’ve had over 30 years of experience in academia. But what good does that do? It’s not experience because it means little in terms of practical knowledge.  

NN: You’d said that while you were conducting research, most women, including your wife, were extremely discomfited by your research on sanitary pads — they did not acquiesce to any questions on it. 

Arunachalam: Yes. In fact, this is still a major problem. Most people assume that my job has become easier now. They tend to think that it’s easier to conduct research because I’m famous. No, it’s still as difficult. Most people we work with have no idea who I am. They’re from rural areas where people have no knowledge of what we do. I think that’s the thing with social entrepreneurship; it’s much more difficult than regular entrepreneurship. 

NN: Your endeavour has branched out overseas as well. Your products are now available to the poor in many other countries. How did this happen? 

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