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Man who tackled taboo of sanitary care for women in India celebrated in new film


Arunachalam Muruganantham is a poor man in India who did something extraordinary for women. Newly married, he discovered his wife was wearing rags he described as "nasty cloths", because if she bought sanitary pads she wouldn't be able to afford milk or run the household.

88% of women in India resort to using ashes, newspapers, dried leaves and even husk sand during their periods, according to a report by market research group AC Nielsen called Sanitary Protection: Every Woman's Health Right. The BBC reported approximately 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by these unhygienic practices.

Muruganantham went into town to buy his wife a sanitary pad and found it cost 4 rupees, 40 times the price of producing it. Shocked by this news, he decided to make 'the period' his business.

Having grown up selling fireworks, sugarcane and lamps and at the age of 15 making gates and windows in a workshop, crafting a sanitary towel didn't seem like a big deal to Muruganantham.

But it is. Menstruation is still hugely taboo in India and amongst the Indian diaspora. Women can't practise religion and in some communities must not cook during their time of month. As a British Asian myself, and one of three sisters, I still hop around and divert the topic of being on my period when my dad is in the room. What Muruganantham did next is so small feat.

He purchased the best quality cotton he could find and made a few samples. Unaware of menstrual cycles - he didn't even know periods were monthly - he asked his wife and sisters to test them but both refused to discuss his creations with him. When his sisters saw him coming, they'd shout loudly to his wife next door to say that if he was going to ask them about towels, he'd better go back home.

Highly determined, he approached female medical students and when they refused to give feedback on his sanitary towels, he gave them forms to make communication easier. But his wife was convinced he was using sanitary towels as an excuse to get close to other women, and a year and half after he started his research, she left him.

With all the odds against Muruganantham and no women willing to discuss his handmade sanitary towel in depth, he decided to test it himself.

He made a 'uterus' by piercing wholes in a football bladder and collected goat's blood from a former classmate who was a butcher. To prevent it clotting too quickly he mixed in an additive he got from another friend at a blood bank. So contraption would release a small dose of blood whenever pressed so he walked, cycled and ran with the contraption under his traditional clothes for a week to test his sanitary pad's absorption rates.

By this point, the village thought he was a mad man. His friends avoided him and others called him a pervert. When he was caught washing his bloodied clothes at a public well, locals concluded he had a sexual disease.

Did that stop him? No. After his cotton sanitary towels proved to be unsuccessful, he supplied a group of medical students with sanitary pads, recollected them and studied them. Only one afternoon his mother stumbled upon a scene of used pads laid out in the back yard and for her it was the final straw. She packed his bags and left him too. The superstitious villagers became convinced he was possessed by evil spirits and he agreed to leave the village.

Still, he carried on, trying to solve the biggest mystery of was what successful sanitary pads were made of. Two years and three months later - after seeking help from a local college professor and writing to sanitary towel manufacturers pretending to be a textile mill owner - he discovered cellulose from the bark of a tree was the secret ingredient.

Knowing the machine required to break this cellulose down and turn it into pads would cost thousands of dollars, he decided to design his own. Four-and-a-half years later, he produced a low-cost and easy-to-use machine which he now sells to rural women with the help of bank loans, as well as through NGOs and women's self-help groups.

Now in 2013, Muruganantham is a bit of a celebrity. He won the award for the best innovation for the betterment of society from the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai and is now the subject of a 63-minute documentary film called Menstrual Man. And the good news is his wife and mother have both moved back in with him.

Muruganantham's story is inspiring and moving. Despite his poor background, lack of family support and the controversy he was fuelling, he did not let that deter him from his mission to solve a huge problem for women in India. He will soon be joining Stylist.co.uk's The Male Feminists Gallery.

Watch the Menstrual Man at menstrualman.com

Written by Sejal Kapadia



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