Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The First Man To Wear A Sanitary Napkin

Necessity isn’t the only mother that Invention has. A far more popular mother is the one that urges the research and development departments of thousands of corporate firms. This mother is better known as profit or the pursuit of higher revenues. Even in cases where Necessity has given birth to Invention, there have been so many instances of the offspring being adopted by this other mother, she who thinks nothing of exploiting her children for lucre.

Recently I came to know of the third mother of Invention. The one barely anyone has heard of. Her name is Selfless Disinterest.

I had read of Arunachalam Muruganantham a few months ago in an online newspaper, but the man’s inspiring story became more real when I saw his 14.59-minute video HERE. Unsophisticated, with halting English, but superb wit, he has nevertheless earned himself the right to share his inspiring story as a visiting professor and guest lecturer at many business schools.

His claim to fame: the manufacture of a low-cost sanitary napkin.

We women, who have the money to walk up to a medical store and whisper of our desire to be carefree and stay that way, know little of the horrors suffered by 95% of women who, if they had the money, would spend it on food and other necessities. Spending it on buying a sanitary napkin seems like a waste of money when so many other needs are crying out loud. These women end up using rags, leaves of plants, husk, sawdust, even ash, to stem the monthly flow of blood.

I cannot even begin to imagine the physical distress and pain that they invite upon themselves, not to mention the indignity of having to struggle, with shame, to cope with a perfectly natural circumstance. The women also expose themselves to the risk of pelvic diseases, resulting from contamination.

When Arunachalam caught sight of his young wife hiding some rags, perhaps already used, from her husband, he asked her why she didn’t wear a sanitary napkin. He was told that it would upset the monthly budget.

So Arunachalam used precious money from that shaky budget to buy a packet of sanitary napkins. The bewildered, bemused and patronizingly pitiful expressions on the faces in the store did nothing to suppress his zeal. He was a man on a mission.

Bringing home the packet, Arunachalam dissected it into the parts that made up the sum. Surely there was some high technology at work here, he told himself. As he says in the video, he thought it might contain some hidden chip or integrated circuit that would justify the prohibitive cost. But all he found was cotton of different textures, all wrapped up in a rectangular package and glued together.

Arunachalam went to a textile mill nearby and bought cotton, which he fashioned into a rudimentary sanitary napkin. But here he faced an unexpected hurdle. Being an average male, he had no idea about monthly cycles, and was disappointed to know that he would have to wait for his wife to get her periods before she could test them. Her judgment, when she tried it, was Unsatisfactory.

Back to the drawing board Arunachalam went. He made some more. Again the wait. He tried to enroll his sisters in the testing, and was crushed to know that his enthusiasm was not shared by others. Some medical college students, asked to assist in the testing, were not comfortable with his proposition either.

And then in the interests of a cause that had little to do with his sex, let alone himself, Arunachalam tested it himself. He wore the sanitary napkin, filled a bottle with animal blood and led a connecting tube to the napkin, such that as he walked, the blood, a little at a time, would get deposited on the sanitary napkin. In the video, he laughs, calling his efforts the consequence of the Trial and Error method.

Driven on by a goal that nobody else could even begin to understand, Arunachalam invented a machine that would manufacture the low-cost napkins. His efforts were not without drastic consequences. His wife served him a divorce notice. His mother left him. He was thrown out of his village.

Today this winner of the President’s award has given 706 such machines to 23 Indian states, resulting in direct employment for 7000 rural women. And most importantly allowing 3.5 million women to embrace low-cost yet effective personal hygiene during their periods.

Anshu Gupta of Goonj is doing something similar. Mobilising people everywhere to donate items of clothing that they no longer need, Gupta’s team repurposes them into sanitary napkins for rural women.

The lasting benefits of these low-cost sanitary napkins are things that only a woman could ever fully appreciate, given the shame, the lack of awareness and the silence associated around the subject of menstruation.

The efforts of Arunachalam and Anshu remind me of an old Tamilian verse whose loose English translation I read decades ago. It says:

This world lives because
Some men do not eat alone,
not even when they get
the sweet ambrosia of the gods;

there's no faintness in their hearts
and they do not strive
for themselves.

Because such men are,
this world is.

This entry is in response to a contest organised by Indiblogger in association with Franklin Templeton Investments.
Franklin Templeton Investments partnered the TEDxGateway Mumbai in December 2012.


  1. Very interesting Post. It is heartening to know some men do care about their womenfolk, instead of mocking them about PMS and what not. Do you have more details on the "branding" and if it is available in the cities?

    Angela Peter

  2. What a fantastic man, Cynthia. To actually experiment with the product shows his passion and selflessness. When I got my first period, our household condition was much the same - we had to confiscate used dhotis and lungis to shape into a pad that was reasonably comfortable, always worrying that our clothes would stain and tell the world that it was THAT time of the month. And so we walked around, scared, cringing, probably telling the whole world ourselves.

    Hats off to Mr. Arunachalam. Yes, I am associated with Goonj in their efforts - what a wonderful initiative!

    Thank you for a wonderful read, Cynthia. I especially loved your writing style as usual!

  3. Thank you for your comment, Angela. Yes, the man is indeed a rarity. To manufacture a machine like this and then offer it freely without expecting a return. He is indeed a hero.

  4. Thank you for your warm and kind words, Vidya.
    I too am in awe of the man. I am amazed at the lengths to which he went just to support a cause he believed was just.
    Ah, those days. Now that you remind me, I too used to use cloth back in school. It was traumatic, always having to peer at the back of your dress to make sure no telltale signs were showing.
    I had no idea you are associated with Goonj. That is certainly a wonderful organisation. I make it a point to pack up all my old clothes and things for them.

  5. What a FANTASTIC post!!! Sanitary napkins are pricey but I have never given much thought to what women do that do not have access to pads. What this man did is so inspiring!! So so inspiring!
    Thanks for the great read this early Wednesday morning. :)

  6. Thank you, Tamala. This man truly deserves the appreciation of women everywhere.

  7. It's wonderful to hear of a man willing to do so much. Why hadn't anyone thought of doing that before him though? I am impressed that he was willing to go out and buy the napkins and then test his inventions himself. Very few men would consider doing that and it shows his love for his wife and his respect of all women.

  8. Thanks. Interesting post. Hats off to Mr Arunachalam!

  9. Hats off to Mr Arunachalam for taking so much efforts for the benefit of women in the rural set-up. His dedication for the cause is truly commendable. The best part is that his invention is not only helping so many women lead a healthy, hygienic and comfortable life during the menstrual period but is also providing employment to so many!
    Kudos to Mr Arunachalam. May his tribe increase!

  10. Your post brought a tear to my eye. We western women take access to sanitary towels for granted. A couple I know make a point of sending out sanitary ware in their charity consignments every year. What a wonderful man and thank you for sharing his story on your blog. Sharon

  11. I read about him last when from a fella blogger last week. He is truly a man that every one should admire both for his courage and his selflessness. Those that shun him did not understand because he was different and dare to dream and change the world.

  12. you know when I saw his video, I was all bloated up with so much respect for him... I mean the man literally used it to know how it feels... his story is so heartening.. and his efforts are really priceless..

    all the best for the contest Cynthia..

    I have an award waiting for you on my Day #31 post.. i really hope you like it:)

  13. Excellent post. I was amazed to read about the wife and mother's reaction; you would think hey would have been proud. I would have!

  14. That awesome Cynthia. can understand the kind of emotional and social resistance he must have gone through in his search for a solution. When someone sets out to do something out of the ordinary they must need a lot of passion and this is so evident from the way he uses humor to make up for his struggles.
    As a teen my mother had told me that they use cloth in those days in the rural area, I never really understood the implications of the same and how it compromises their health as well and now I do understand how that can be the cause of inconvenience for lots of women. This man really gave a lot of thought to this and has indeed displayed exemplary courage.Great!

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  16. this is fascinating. I always assumed a woman had created the sanitary napkin. What a brilliant and sensitive man. The world needs more of those. :-)

  17. Thank you for another awesome material. Where else could anybody get that type of information in such a perfect way of writing..
    bella sanitary pads

  18. Very nice to know that some man are so open minded. That will help women to get inclined more to Female Hygiene.



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