In 1998 Arunachalam Muruganantham’s was just married and his life revolved around his wife and widowed mother. One day he discovered that his wife, Shanthi, was hiding something from him. He was shocked to discover that it was rags, “nasty cloths”, which she used during menstruation. “I would not even use these to clean my two wheeler,” Muruganantham said later in a TED talk.
Muruganantham immediately ran to the store to buy sanitary pads to impress his wife. To his shock he found that these were quite unaffordable. He nevertheless bought them to find out what they were made of. When he tore the pad open he found it contained a white cotton like substance. Wondering why a few pennies worth of cotton was being sold as a “pad” at such expensive price, he resolved to make the pad himself.
He fashioned one home made pad out of cotton and proudly handed it to his wife for testing. To his shock he learnt that he had to wait till her period occurred. It was then he understood for the first time that periods happened on a monthly cycle! He then realized that if he had to wait for a month for each round of testing, his pad would take decades to perfect. He needed more volunteers and would have to approach other women.
It was then the enormity of the problem slowly came to light. He found that very few women in the surrounding villages used sanitary pads. Just like his wife did, women used old rags and were too embarrassed to dry them in the sun, which meant that they never got disinfected. Approximately 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene. Muruganantham now realized that this was much bigger than him trying to impress his newly married wife. Women were literally dying because of this and he was determined to put an end to this. His life was forever changed.
When Muruganantham could not find suitable volunteers to test his pads, he had no option but to test them himself. “I became the man who wore a sanitary pad,” he says. He created a “uterus” from a football bladder and filled it with goat’s blood. A former classmate, a butcher, would ring his bicycle bell outside the house whenever he was about to slaughter a goat. Muruganantham would rush out and collect the blood and mix an additive he got from another friend at a blood bank to prevent it from clotting too quickly. But that did not stop the smell. He then walked around the village with the football bladder under his clothes, constantly pumping blood to test the pad’s absorption rate. Not surprisingly people around him thought he had gone mad.
When people saw him washing his bloodied clothes at the public well word went around that he had some kind of sexual disease. His friends deserted him and soon his wife got fed up and left. “So you see God’s sense of humor,” he said. “I’d started the research for my wife and after 18 months she left me!”
But Muruganantham was not to be dissuaded. He could not give up on countless dying women just because his wife left him. So he soldiered on. But his problems were not over. In fact they were about to multiply. One day he had another brainwave- he would study used sanitary pads. This was no easy undertaking in such a superstitious community. “Even if I ask for a hair from a lady, she would suspect I am doing black magic on her to mesmerize her,” he says.
Somehow he convinced a group of college girls that he would supply them with free sanitary pads with the deal that they would return him the used ones. One day he laid out his haul out in the back yard for study, only to find his mother stumble across the grisly scene. This was the final straw. His mother packed up and left too!
This was not the end of his troubles. Local villagers were convinced that he was possessed and had arranged to have him chained upside down to a tree to be “healed” by a local exorcist. He escaped this fate by agreeing to leave the village.
But Muruganantham was not to be deterred. He had to solve the mystery: what was the substance inside the sanitary pad? It looked like cotton. Lab analysis he had got done on the pads indicated that it was cotton, but his own creations using cotton did not work. At the end of his wits, he decided that his only option was to ask the manufacturers of the pads themselves. But how was he going to do this? Multinational companies are not going to be persuaded to spill the beans so easily! Finally he persuaded a college professor, whom he repaid by doing domestic work, to draft letters to manufacturing companies. Then he spent a small fortune following up the letters with phone calls. Finally he convinced an employee at one of the manufacturer that he was a textile mill owner who wanted to move into this business. This employee sent him a sample and the mystery got resolved. The raw material was not cotton but cellulose boards made from the bark of a tree!
It took another four years to perfect a low cost method to produce sanitary towels. The process used four simple steps. A machine similar to a kitchen grinder breaks down the hard cellulose into fluffy material. This is then packed into rectangular cakes using another machine. These are then wrapped in non-woven cloth and disinfected in an ultraviolet treatment unit.
Muruganantham’s vision was not personal profit. Instead he wanted women to use his low cost machines to make the pads and then sell them to other women at low cost. His machines are deliberately skeletal so women themselves can maintain them. His first machine was made entirely of wood. He took it to show it to scientists in IIT Madras to get suggestions on how it could be improved. Unknown to him the scientists entered his machine in a national competition for national innovation award. Out of the 900+ entries he came first! Instant fame followed! He got an award from the President of the country and had reporters following him. Soon funds followed. As word of his success spread, his wife returned back.
It took Muruganantham 18 months to build the first batch of 250 machines. He was determined to take these machines to the most underdeveloped and challenging areas of the country. If he could succeed there, he would succeed anywhere in the country!
In these rural areas, it was difficult to even speak to women directly. To broach the subject of menstruation was next to impossible. Then there was superstitious belief that the use of pad could render you blind. But slowly, village by village he gained cautious acceptance and over time the machines spread to 1300 villages in 23 states. In each case, it’s women who produce the sanitary pads who then sell them directly to customers. Shops are not used as these are run by men and women are reluctant to approach them. But when they get it from women they know they also get important information on how to use them. In some cases no money is used. Instead they are bartered for things like onions and potatoes. Each group of ladies producing pads caters to surrounding villages and uses its own brand name. More than 3 million ladies are now using these low cost pads.
When Muruganantham learnt that 23% of girls drop out of schools once they start menstruating, he began working with schools. Now schools make their own pads. “Why wait till they are women? Why not empower girls?” He says.
Muruganantham now lives in a modest apartment with his wife and daughter. He owns a jeep so it can be taken into the most interior areas of the country. His vision is to create employment for 1 million women throughout the country, and 10 million women throughout the developing world. He hopes to solve the critical issue of giving access to poor women throughout the world to a low cost pad. This access translates to education, empowerment, and health.
While speaking in conferences he challenges his listeners, “If an uneducated man like me can do so much, what can the educated do?”