Thursday, March 17, 2016

Creating better options for women, period.

In most discussions of public health, menstruation is often not brought up, primarily because it is seen as a taboo and is generally an uncomfortable subject. However, issues related to periods can lead to serious health consequences in populations that don't have easy access to basic medical resources. For example, in rural India, 92% of women do not use sanitary pads due to their costs, instead using cloths (which often do not get sun dried due to the stigma around period products, which leads to bacterial growth) and, in extreme cases, sawdust and ash to collect the blood, leading to a variety of reproductive health problems.

Arunachalam Muruganantham, a southern Indian man and high school dropout, first became aware of these problems when, as a newlywed, he saw his wife handling some old rags that he "would not have used to clean his scooter" and asked why she didn't buy herself menstrual pads instead. After she explained that she could not afford both pads and milk, he chose to surprise her by buying her a pad to use. Noticing that they were made of cotton, a fairly cheap crop, he started to wonder if it was possible to produce an affordable sanitary pad that his wife and women in similar situations could use, and shortly set off to work on creating this affordable pad.

 Muruganantham encountered many obstacles in his research; in order to test if the pads he created worked, he needed women to test them, but he learned that only a few of the women in the study filled out everyone else's feedback sheets, meaning these results could not be trusted. He then decided he would test the pads himself, crafting a homemade uterus by punching holes in a soccer ball and filling it with goat blood and wearing it beneath his clothes. He also had the idea to distribute his sanitary napkins for free and study the used napkins to understand how they were working. When he realized his pads did not work as well as the more expensive pads, he decided to shift his focus; pretending to be a millionaire, he wrote to the heads of the manufacturing companies to ask for raw samples, which led him to the key material - cellulose, a material from tree bark that typically is extracted using expensive machinery. However, after four and a half years of trial-and-error, he created an inexpensive machine that extracts the cellulose from trees and can produce packs containing eight pads each for the equivalent of $0.25, making them much more available to rural women. Currently, there are around 1,300 villages across India that have these machines in operation and they have provided thousands of rural women with improved reproductive health options.

In Collins and Amabile's essay on motivation and creativity, they argue that in order for creativity to be achieved, motivation must come from within an individual rather than from concern for what others think of their work. It would be difficult to think of someone who exemplifies this more than Muruganantham; in his initial research, the villagers in his town thought he was a pervert, his wife left him because of his reputation, and even his own mother became disgusted with his work. However, he continued his work regardless because he truly thought he could make a difference, and as a result, he was able to find an innovative solution for a pervasive problem, and his work will continue to benefit women for years to come.

More about his work in his own words:

Works cited
Collins, M. A., & Amabile, T. M. (1999). Motivation and creativity. In Robert J. Sternberg (Ed.) Handbook of Creativity.New York: Cambridge University Press.


  1. Abbey, this is interesting! I'm glad that he stuck with it-he was able to help so many women have a better quality of life. He understood that access to feminine hygiene supplies is a social justice issue, and menstruation should not be such a taboo subject-it's medical and affects half the people on earth. Also, there is good news in Chicago that tampons and sanitary pads no longer have a "luxury tax."

  2. What a creative problem solving strategy! I definitely think in order to be motivated to solve issues, there has to be a personal connection - this requires a recognition of the basic humanity of all people. Muruganantham would not have found the motivation and desire to provide feminine care products without his personal connection to his wife. Maybe, the solution is increasing awareness in our society to increase solutions to issues similar to these.

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  4. Amazing post! I am so touched by his passion and dedication to the work. Even more than his invention of his low cost but extremely efficient machine to make the pads, I am impressed by his attitude towards the criticism he got throughout the process. I watched the video attached to this post as well, and I was shocked to see how engaging he is. He also took this whole process with a light and open heart. He talked about many of his failures with humorous comments too. Another thing that stood out what that he is not doing this for the money. Especially with this technique and machine gaining popularity, he is cautious about running after money. To me, this shows his immense and genuine dedication to help the female population.

    I have actually experienced the struggles of the Indian girls struggling against the stigma behind periods when I was living in India 10 years ago. I was fortunate enough to have caring family to be provided with the basic necessities I needed while I was in India. However, I remember growing up with fellow classmates that would be scared because they thought they are bleeding to death. However, they did not tell the teachers or parents about what was happening to them due to the stigma behind it. Also, the girls on their periods were not allowed to enter Hindu temples, as they are considered impure.

    I had hoped that things would be improved as time passed; however, when I went to visit India two years ago, I saw the same issues still present. When I visited rural and tribal schools in India to teach classes about alcohol awareness for a project, the teachers and some female students requested my group to come back again to spread awareness of menstruation and periods since it was not taught in class or discussed by parents. I can only imagine how much Muruganatham went through during this research. Great post! Brought back a lot of memories and shows how one man can make such a positive impact even through massive stigma there.


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