Arunachalam Muruganantham, a married man from India, has invented a machine that allows women to make their own menstrual pads from raw materials. The drive behind this invention came when he realized that his wife needed to purchase pads every month, but could not afford to do so and instead was forced to reuse a “soiled rag”. In fact, only 12% of the reproductive aged women in India use absorbant pads, the rest rely on things like old rags, leaves, grass, and ash. After realizing how much this impacted his wife’s quality of life, Muruganantham decided to create a device that would help relieve the obstacles that poverty present and embarrassment that Indian women experience due to their menstrual cycles.
Attaching a bladder filled with animal blood to his belly, he fed a tube into his underwear so that he could properly experience what it was like to have a “period”. His curiosity and drive to help his wife and other women eventually led to the invention of a machine that allows women to manufacture their own menstrual pads. The machine, according to Muruganantham’s website, is simple to use and can produce 120 pads per hour. The machine is designed to be purchased by women’s groups, communities, and other organizations, rather than for individual use as the cost is $1,860 per machine, including the equipment, set-up, and training. Muruganantham claims that the machine will provide a net profit of 10,000 rupees per month, but it is not clear how this breaks down in personal cost to the consumers, for whom, supposedly, this machine is designed to help. Currently, 1,000 machines have been installed throughout India and in 6 other countries around the world.
The issue of women’s menstrual cycles and hygiene is complex and can be a controversial subject. Taboos surrounding the menstrual cycle span the globe. It is not only in India that women are taught to believe that their bodies are dirty and unacceptable, and that any natural emission is shameful and should be hidden. According to Khan and Gokhale (See below), there is no Hindi word for a woman’s genitals that is not derogatory or profane. It should come as no surprise then, that many Indian women, inlcuding Sushma Devi, a 30 year old woman living in Northern India, sneak out of their houses at night to bury their menstrual rags in the dirt.
Even now that Devi has received a menstrual cup (or “moon cup”) from an MIT research group, she keeps it as far away from her as possible and says that it “comes from hell”. This embarrassment that women feel over a natural monthly event can cause obstacles to access, especially if women need to justify a tighter monthly budget to their families.
The use of rags or other materials such as grass can have serious health repercussions for women. Of the deaths caused by cervical cancer in the world, 27% occur in India with poor menstrual hygiene sited as a factor. Women in India use pieces of old saris because it is either too expensive or inconceivably embarrassing to purchase sanitary products.
Muruganantham’s invention not only could help to develop better menstrual hygiene and potentially lower rates of cervical cancer, but could also benefit local and national economies. When there is limited or no access to products that allow for a full range of motion and thus an ability to leave the home, every month for one to seven days during their menstrual cycle women would be unable to go to work and girl’s would have to stay home from school. India is considered to be the third worst country in Asia in regards to gender equality, and this is definitely contributed to by the lack of infrastructure to support women’s health and hygiene. With these structures of support in place, more girls will be able to finish school, which will then allow them to enter the workforce, which will help boost the country’s economic growth and hopefully relieve the burden of poverty.
Although it is always good to see advancements in this area of women’s health, as it is essential to guaranteeing equal opportunity to education, health and employment, Muruganantham’s invention might not be the best product out there. Besides the hefty initial cost, the machine is bulky, requires a group investment, and is not the product with the least environmental impact. The machine creates disposable pads, and thus does nothing to discourage the act of burying used pads in the dirt late at night, an act that could lead to deeper feelings of shame surrounding the menstrual cycle. Individually affordable, reusable, and washable products already exist (such as the Moon Cup), as do development projects that seek to distribute them to women in the Global South. What projects in this area need are educational components that address women’s health and decreasing shame.