Thanks to Twinkle Khanna and now Akshay Kumar, the whole nation knows the story of Arunachalam Muruganantham. His sanitary napkin producing machines, which can manufacture pads for less than a third of the cost of the ones you find commercially, have been installed in 27 of the 29 Indian states. 17 nations are also using his machines.
Why did a need for a man like Arunachalam come up? Because the reality behind menstruation in rural India is harsh. And until recently, nobody really appreciated how serious the problem actually was.
A lot of women in rural India don't have the money to buy sanitary pads or even clean cloth to soak up blood during their periods. Instead, they resort to padding their underwear with soil or sometimes even ash. The soil, ash or dust sits directly in contact with the women’s skin, causing severe infections or in some cases even uterine cancer.
For women hailing from extreme poverty, buying a pack of pads would mean a week of no access to food for not only her, but the entire family. For these women, even fabric is precious and rare, most owning less than three items of clothing. Each commercial napkin can cost anywhere from 5 to 12 rupees, making it unaffordable for women from villages.
A 2011 study published that only 12% of Indian women have access to sanitary pads during their periods. The study says that the remaining 88% use 'alternatives like un-sanitised cloth, ashes and husk sand'.
The Government did try to rectify this statistic. They’ve introduced free sanitary pad programs for students in rural areas. Girls under this program can avail a pack of pads on a regular basis.
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare commenced the ‘Scheme for Promotion of Menstrual Hygiene’ for girls of 10-19 years in rural areas. This scheme was launched as part of the Adolescent Reproductive Sexual Health (ARSH) initiative.
They focused on increasing menstrual hygiene awareness, increasing access to high quality sanitary napkins, ensuring safe disposal of used napkins in a judicious and environment friendly way. They provided a pack of 6 napkins for Rs. 6. The scheme was introduced in 112 selected districts in 17 states through central supply of napkin packs.
However recent research has demonstrated that such government agendas are often tarnished by a dearth of funds, as ensuring a continuous supply of disposable single use pads is not a one time expense. This makes the program financially unsustainable for governments. It is also inadequate because girls through the scheme only receive 6 pads per month which is not enough. Trying to manage an entire menstrual cycle with 6 pads leads to girls wearing pads for longer durations than is considered safe, eventually causing infection.
In a scenario like this, a man like Muruga was really able to alter the landscape. It took him two years to find the right material and another four years to develop the low-cost machine. Imported machines cost over US$500,000. Arunachalam’s machine, by contrast, is priced at US$950. He has been labelled India’s pad man, thanks to his research and contribution to the field.
Following in his footsteps is another samaritan who wants to change the scenario of menstruation in rural India. Twenty-seven year old Ruhpreet returned from the U.S. following an upsetting divorce but completely transformed her life around after discovering a purpose. After facing troubles in her own marriage, she decided to devote herself to changing the lives of women and fight to uplift and empower them.
She is providing napkins to women from Patiala for free. She also conducts educational awareness programs. In conjunction with the Har Haath Kalam, she plans to set up a factory to manufacture sanitary pads which are affordable as well as hygienic to use and then distribute these napkins to the women she works with.