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Mar 05 2014

Crazy, obsessed, weird, perverse

arunachalam

Sometimes those are good descriptors. I read a happy story for a change this morning: it’s about Arunachalam Muruganantham, an Indian man who embarked on a long crusade to make…sanitary napkins. Perhaps you laugh. Perhaps you get a little cranky at a guy who rushes in to meddle in women’s concerns. And there’s some good reason to feel that way: he starts out with embarrassing levels of ignorance.

He fashioned a sanitary pad out of cotton and gave it to Shanthi [his wife], demanding immediate feedback. She said he’d have to wait for some time – only then did he realise that periods were monthly. “I can’t wait a month for each feedback, it’ll take two decades!” He needed more volunteers.

And then a man who didn’t realize until then that menstrual periods were monthly dedicated himself to years of tinkering and testing to build a machine to manufacture sanitary napkins, which just sounds perversely fanatical and obsessive. But it turns out to be a serious problem for poor women.

Women who do use cloths are often too embarrassed to dry them in the sun, which means they don’t get disinfected. Approximately 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene – it can also affect maternal mortality.

So Muruganantham set out to teach himself everything about making napkins, and examining and testing used menstrual pads. His wife left him. He was regarded as a sick pariah in his town — the disgusting guy who plays with menstrual blood. He was going up against traditional taboos and public squeamishness.

But he succeeded! He designed and built simple machines that take cotton and cellulose at one end and churn out disposable sanitary napkins — and it was relatively cheap, easy to maintain, and could be distributed to rural India where the women themselves could make the necessaries. And then we learn about his philosophy…

Muruganantham seemed set for fame and fortune, but he was not interested in profit. “Imagine, I got patent rights to the only machine in the world to make low-cost sanitary napkins – a hot-cake product,” he says. “Anyone with an MBA would immediately accumulate the maximum money. But I did not want to. Why? Because from childhood I know no human being died because of poverty – everything happens because of ignorance.”

He believes that big business is parasitic, like a mosquito, whereas he prefers the lighter touch, like that of a butterfly. “A butterfly can suck honey from the flower without damaging it,” he says.

Oh my god, an idealist. I thought they were all extinct! And such a fine beautiful specimen, too! I’m going to steal that metaphor, as well, just because it is so lovely.

Most of Muruganantham’s clients are NGOs and women’s self-help groups. A manual machine costs around 75,000 Indian rupees (£723) – a semi-automated machine costs more. Each machine converts 3,000 women to pads, and provides employment for 10 women. They can produce 200-250 pads a day which sell for an average of about 2.5 rupees (£0.025) each.

Women choose their own brand-name for their range of sanitary pads, so there is no over-arching brand – it is “by the women, for the women, and to the women”.

And my heart grew two sizes that day.

48 comments

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  1. 1
    tsig

    My reseviour of faith in humanity just got a huge increase.

  2. 2
    The Mellow Monkey

    I didn’t expect to be inspired by an article about a man clueless about menstruation, but…wow. That was a genuinely nice story.

  3. 3
    Lars

    I guess that specific piece of ignorance says more about the culture this man is coming from, than it says about the man himself.

  4. 4
    Portia (aka Smokey the Advocate)

    Read this yesterday…it’s wonderful. I also like the part where it’s not a white USian college kid who swooped in to “save” Indian women.

    *applause*

  5. 5
    Don Quijote

    “Each machine converts 3’000 women to pads…..”

    Effective but not a god way to deal with over population.

  6. 6
    Alan Boyle

    It’s an awesome story, provided that this is mistyped:

    Each machine converts 3,000 women to pads, and provides employment for 10 women.

    Because that seems an awfully inefficient ratio of women-in:pads-out.

  7. 7
    Alan Boyle

    @5 Don Quijote

    Dammit, beaten to the punch.

  8. 8
    Louis

    [Stops drinking]

    A GOOD thing? LOOKIT!! LOOKIT! A GOOD THING!!!!!

    [Dances]

    [Falls over]

    [Recommences drinking]

    Louis

  9. 9
    anteprepro

    What’s this? I am dangerously close to feeling again? I’m sure that will be fixed soon enough. But kudos to this guy, though. That’s how you do this whole “being a decent human being” thing. Wish that the people who needed the guidance the most would huddle around and take notes.

  10. 10
    pacal

    All I can say is WOW! Sometimes when you think humans are a lost cause, you find out about humans who are bluntly decent and your whole misanthrophic mood goes away.

  11. 11
    Gregory in Seattle

    Stories like this help to make me a bit less curmudgeonly: it is good to know that there are decent people out there.

    I will admit, though, that the article made me acutely aware of not only my male privilege, but my first-world privilege as well. I knew that the image of “modern, industrialized, tech-savvy India” was a façade, but to actually look at what is behind the veneer… wow. I’m glad that Muruganantham has the support of NGOs to bring his invention to other parts of the world.

  12. 12
    rq

    Don Quijote
    You win.
    Although I would quibble: it just might be a god way to deal with over-population. ;)

    +++

    Thanks for sharing this story, PZ.

  13. 13
    hillaryrettig

    Great story! Very inspiring, and shows how much potential we have to solve even intractable problems. All it takes is the right kind of person. We should all be obsessed with finding and supporting such people – and growing that potential in ourselves – and the Web makes it possible in so many ways.

    This story reminded me of the stories in Eyal Press’s book Beautiful Souls, about people who act out of conscience in difficult circmstances. They aren’t inventors, but an Israeli soldier who became a peace activist, a Swiss bureaucrat in WWII who issued Visas to Jews, a financial exec who became a whistleblower, etc.

    And it reminds me of this guy, who responded to life under Soviet repression by making a submarine: http://inventorspot.com/articles/smallest_russian_submarine_officially_registered_boat_23196

    “I was not satisfied with the fate that was laid out for me. I wanted to satisfy myself and to have some respect for my life. If I learned to respect myself, I felt it would be easier to find my niche in life. I didn’t know it would work. I just hoped.”

  14. 14
    Anders Kehlet

    Muruganantham also works with schools – 23% of girls drop out of education once they start menstruating. Now school girls make their own pads. “Why wait till they are women? Why not empower girls?”

    I guess there are heroes after all.

  15. 15
    Leo Buzalsky

    “He was going up against traditional taboos and public squeamishness.”

    Which may explain the “embarrassing levels of ignorance.” Embarrassing to us. Not necessarily embarrassing in the culture he’s fighting.

  16. 16
    Gen, Uppity Ingrate and Ilk

    What a great thing this guy has done! I can’t even imagine the sacrifices he had to make to improve the lives of poor women the way he ended up doing – something that doesn’t even directly affect him himself! Really amazing.

    Women who do use cloths are often too embarrassed to dry them in the sun, which means they don’t get disinfected. Approximately 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene – it can also affect maternal mortality.

    Wow. It sure is a much needed slap to read this and realize how much privilege I have in this regard. 70%? That’s horrifying!

    And that butterfly metaphor is beautiful.

  17. 17
    Pierce R. Butler

    If his process requires that the assembly worker wear a sanitary mask and (apparently) latex gloves, why did he put his bare hand on that fabric roll?

  18. 18
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    I’m reminded of when I was in graduate school I walked past a table raising money for charity. I asked what the charity was. They funded women to go from village to village in central Africa teaching preteen girls how to sew sanitary functional napkins and how to clean them after they were used. They also distributed high-quality raw materials.

    They bragged that the rates of post-menarche girls attending school was 40% higher in villages where these educators had been than in villages where they hadn’t.

    It blew my mind. And I was embarrassed that my mind was so blown.

  19. 19
    frog

    I’m guessing the 3000 women converted to pads are women converted to using pads (instead of some other method).

    You have to admire someone who recognized his own ignorance and instead of saying, “Ah, screw it,” he educated himself. As noted upthread, his ignorance says a lot about his culture; in addition, the reaction of people to his um, study in pursuit of this invention is telling.

    His philosophy is wonderful. And by providing women with a better way to manage menstruation, he’ll have increased the number of women who get an education, and who therefore can run their households better, or get a paying job or start a small business. The benefits of this will be huge, ongoing, and subtle.

  20. 20
    caravelle

    I’m guessing the 3000 women converted to pads are women converted to using pads (instead of some other method).

    That makes sense.
    The article had a very Soylent Green feel to it otherwise… (we solved India’s sanitary pad problem ! Just don’t look to closely at the factories making them)

  21. 21
    Sili

    Pierce R. Butler

    If his process requires that the assembly worker wear a sanitary mask and (apparently) latex gloves, why did he put his bare hand on that fabric roll?

    Perhaps the mask is to protect the worker not the pad. Constant exposure to fine fibres might not be good for neither lungs nor skin.

  22. 22
    Maureen Brian

    I agree with you, sili – no idea how irritating chopped-up cellulose might be but the full story (link in the OP) says the pads are sterilised with ultra-violet light once made.

  23. 23
    unclefrogy

    it is called Byssinosis one of the many occupational diseases caused by the work we do.

    uncle frogy

  24. 24
    opposablethumbs

    I was just reading this article on the news this morning. That must have taken/be taking some incredible determination.

    “Why wait till they are women? Why not empower girls?”

    Agreed – this kind of flesh-and-blood hero is worth a million “superheroes” any day.

  25. 25
    Hairhead, whose head is entirely filled with Too Much Stuff

    This reminds me of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’s life philosophy: “Run and find out!”

    Seriously, the man realized he was ignorant and just went ahead and educated himself about the problem; then, having found the problem, decided, as a human being, that the problem ought to solved; and then went out and solved it.

    How simple, how obvious, and how rare!

  26. 26
    illdoittomorrow

    Bookmarked for future reference, so that I may show some glib one-percenter what real job creation, and creating a product for the benefit of society, looks like.

  27. 27
    cuervocuero

    In the article it says “converted to pads *usage*’. maybe they caught the confusion and fixed it.

    Pierce @ the masked technician shown in the photo is not wearing latex gloves to my eyes. She’s wearing multiple bracelets.

    There’s a similar market for this in African nations. Many girls are stopped from attending school, simply because they have no menstrual supplies.

    Related works:

    There is a charity org called SHE, which works with womens co-operatives and local materials (like banana fiber) to build small sustainable manufactories producing menstrual pads and employing women.

    Another angle of costs on such basic supplies is lobbying governments, even in the ‘developed’ ‘West’, to remove consumer taxes from menstrual absorbers of all kinds, to make them more economical.

  28. 28
    Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened

    Faith in Humanity = Restored. Thanks, Arunachalam! :D *applause*

    Seriously, shit like this cheers me up. More of this, please.

  29. 29
    HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

    This is really wonderful. I love that this guy realized he didn’t know, learned, and is saving actual lives. And the taboos he was up against must have been pretty damn intense, I’m so glad he persevered.

    Even people who menstruate but haven’t been desperately poor don’t really think about how vital it is to have access to sanitary supplies. I mean, for those with money, we’re pretty spoiled for choice, as the Ginormous Wall of Period Stuff in any drugstore shows.

    Unfortunately, in so many discussions of menstrual supply access, there’s usually a loud contingent of people whose response is “but pads are evil! send then menstrual cups!”, which is facepalm-worthy. Because people who have really strong period taboos are going to want to stick things in there, especially considering the thing about hymens that many of the cultures have. And everyone has access to clean water they can wash it in before re-inserting. I love my cup, but JFC, it’s not for everyone.

    Not that surprising that he didn’t know periods were monthly, I recall reading interviews with rural Indian women who hadn’t heard of periods at all. Marrying exceedingly young + later menarche because of nutrition reasons + constant pregnancy and childbearing = WTF is a period?

  30. 30
    augustpamplona

    I ran into a mention of a program with nearly identical aims a few months back. It’s from something called Sustainable Health Enterprises which appears to have been created for this:
    http://www.sheinnovates.com/ourventures.html

  31. 31
    jnorris

    Dobri Dobrev in Bulgaria. http://www.viralnova.com/compassionate-homeless-person/
    Jonas Salk.
    The women Esteleth (at #18) met in college.
    And now Mr Muruganantham in India.
    Every once-in-a while, some human acts like one.

  32. 32
    cactusren

    HappiestSadist: YES! I’m all for cups where there is access to clean running water. I use them most of the time, but switch to disposable options when I do field work, because I can’t always wash my hands and because clean water has to be saved for drinking. For people who live without the ‘luxury’ of running water, having access to disposable sanitary pads makes a huge difference. If someone wants to campaign for more cup usage, they should do it in the developed world, where it’s a viable option.

    PZ: this story was lovely. I didn’t know where it was going at first, but it turned out to be beautiful.

  33. 33
    Tony! The Queer Shoop

    Day in, day out, I read or hear stories about some of the worst traits of humanity. Whether it’s the passage of draconian laws against homosexuals in Uganda, the latest shit spewing from Pat Buchanan’s mouth, police brutality, gun violence taking the lives of children, or self absorbed mega billionaires expressing their disdain of the poor and working class, the worst of humanity is on display.
    Every.
    Single.
    Day.

    I can’t express how happy I was to read this story. As others have noted, Arunachalam Muruganantham may have been ignorant about menstrual cycles, but he not only overcame that ignorance through education (YES!), but used that education to create a product that has been of great benefit to women (DOUBLE YES!). Perhaps his dedication is bizarre (I wouldn’t call it perverse), but he is to be commended!

    You may never read this Mr Muruganantham, but I wish to thank you nonetheless.

  34. 34
    Marc Abian

    only then did he realise that periods were monthly

    What the fuck?

    Periods are real?

    Sorry I doubted you, ladies.

  35. 35
    grasshopper

    I have often wondered why descriptive appellations for female reproductive-health products seem to require the use of the word “sanitary” as part of the name.

    Are women inherently unclean, or something?

  36. 36
    seraphymcrash

    @35

    I could be wrong, but considering the article said that the biggest spreader of reproductive diseases was lack of available sanitary napkins, I think that explains the “sanitary” portion.

  37. 37
    kreativekaos

    DOG Almighty!! An idealist! With little regard for profit and enrichment! Using creativity. knowledge and drive to due something useful and beneficial for society, and be proud and satisfied with that alone..
    How freakin’ refreshing!

    I wish we could see many more examples like that posted on blogs everywhere, in news reports everyday. Perhaps we could just begin to have an influence on the cultural/social psychology and consciousness that might just begin to affect the thinking in this country, ‘bend the arc toward justice’ and influence a more rational way of life than profit motivated, consumerist mentality that has driven it for the past 30 plus years.

    Pie in the sky wishful thinking,… sorry ’bout that.

  38. 38
    WMDKitty -- Survivor

    *big goofy grin*

    Faith In Humanity +5

  39. 39
    grasshopper

    @36

    To be explicit, I feel that the use of the word sanitary with regard to female reproductive-health products is a subtle reinforcement of the religious meme that women are inherently “unclean”. It’s the label which I take umbrage with, not with whether the product is needed.

  40. 40
    anuran

    I am so happy that religious beliefs didn’t have anything to do with his desire to do something good
    Because that would have ruined it

  41. 41
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    As I understand it, the term “sanitary napkin” was originally invented by the marketing department at some company or another.

    The things already existed, and the company decided that emphasizing how “clean” and “hygienic” they were would give them an edge. Other terms at the time were “ladies’ napkin” and (!) “ladies’ wool diaper.”

    Growing up, I always just called them “pads.”

  42. 42
    randay

    £0.025 per unit. Imagine the markup if a multinational like Nike were running the show. It would probably be 100 to 1000 times more expensive.

  43. 43
    captainahags

    Shut up and take my money!
    But seriously how do I donate to whoever is funding these?

  44. 44
    Carlos Cabanita

    A couple generations ago the icky cloth was the universal method, in the west too. Years ago I interrogated my mother (now 97) and she said that was the method used. Also, when my daughter was born, the transition from cloth nappies to disposable nappies was happening. Disposable nappies were still too expensive to use everyday, so they were used only for travelling.
    Despite the huge environmental impact, the everyday use of disposable consumables brought a great life improvement to everyone. I don’t even want to talk abot life before the toilet paper.
    That man even figured out a way to manufacture that product for a fraction of what western women pay for a similar thing!

  45. 45
    David Marjanović

    Agreed – this kind of flesh-and-blood hero is worth a million “superheroes” any day.

    Reed Richards Is Useless

    I am so happy that religious beliefs didn’t have anything to do with his desire to do something good
    Because that would have ruined it

    Don’t troll.

    Also, when my daughter was born, the transition from cloth nappies to disposable nappies was happening. Disposable nappies were still too expensive to use everyday, so they were used only for travelling.

    Oh, I’ve still seen cloth nappies in actual use on my brother. (…On myself, too, obviously, but I’m pretty sure I can’t remember that.) We’re talking mid-late 1980s Austria here, and by no means below the poverty line.

    This is why washing machines go all the way to 95 °C. For clothes you don’t really ever need more than 60.

  46. 46
    David Marjanović

    …Diapers. I mean diapers.

    Me fail English? Unpossible?

  47. 47
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    David, “nappies” is to “diapers” as BritEng is to AmEng.

    But I’m pretty sure you knew that ;)

    If you’d rather, you can just say “Windeln” and the rest of us can Google.

  48. 48
    nathanaelnerode

    All I can say is, thanks for the link. It’s nice to read something which is good news.

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