The XX Factor

The Man Who Made the Period Safe for the Women of India

According to a 2011 survey cited by the BBC, only 12 percent of Indian women were using sanitary pads.

Photo by Picsfive/Shutterstock

My hero of the week is Arunachalam Muruganantham, the man who made the period safe for the women of India. Muruganantham’s decadelong odyssey to create an affordable sanitary pad for village women is the subject of an incredible BBC Magazine story. It’s a tale of an inventor’s obsession, in the face of ostracism, and it ends in triumph, with Muruganantham’s simple, low-cost machine for the production of cheap, clean pads that can replace the dirty rags, sawdust, leaves, and ash women were using to absorb their menstrual flow.

This is a true public health advance. According to a 2011 survey cited by the BBC, only 12 percent of Indian women were using sanitary pads. One reason was cost; another was custom. And as the BBC reports, “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.”

Muruganantham’s quest to save the women of his village, including his wife, led him to punch holes in a football bladder, fill it with goat’s blood, and then try to walk, bike and run with it under his clothes to test the absorption rate of his first attempt at a sanitary pad. His village decided he was a “pervert,” he says, who’d been bewitched. His wife left him. And at first, his pads, made of cotton, didn’t work. Muruganantham couldn’t figure out what was going wrong. He wrote to a professor, who helped him get in touch with manufacturing companies. They sent him a sample of their material, and it turned out to be cellulose, from tree bark. The BBC story, by Vibeke Venema, continues:

Four-and-a-half years later, he succeeded in creating a low-cost method for the production of sanitary towels. The process involves four simple steps. First, a machine similar to a kitchen grinder breaks down the hard cellulose into fluffy material, which is packed into rectangular cakes with another machine.

The cakes are then wrapped in non-woven cloth and disinfected in an ultraviolet treatment unit. The whole process can be learned in an hour.

Here’s the happy ending: Muruganantham’s machine won a national innovation award. His wife came back. He built 250 of his machines and shopped them to other poor rural villages. They’ve since spread to a total of 1,300. Women come up with their own brand names and run the machines for their own production and sales, so Muruganantham has also given them a means of employment. His next plan is to expand to other countries, like Kenya, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Bangladesh.

What is it about women’s health that inspires regular guys in other countries to solve problems that giant global corporations have not? The joke about why there is no male birth control pill comes to mind—nobody cares enough to invest in making one. Muruganantham’s genius contribution reminds me of the tool for saving babies who are stuck in the birth canal invented by Jorge Odón, an Argentine car mechanic. As the New York Times reported last fall, Odón made the connection from getting a cork out of a wine bottle to easing the passage of a baby who has gotten caught: “With the Odón Device, an attendant slips a plastic bag inside a lubricated plastic sleeve around the head, inflates it to grip the head and pulls the bag until the baby emerges. Doctors say it has enormous potential to save babies in poor countries, and perhaps to reduce cesarean section births in rich ones.” The World Health Organization endorsed the product, and a syringe-making company is now manufacturing it. And again, we are talking about improving the health of women and even saving their lives, along with the lives of their babies. The Times reports: “About 5.6 million babies are stillborn or die quickly, and about 260,000 women die in childbirth. Obstructed labor, which can occur when a baby’s head is too large or an exhausted mother’s contractions stop, is a major factor.”

Is there some award the women of the world could bestow on Arunachalam Muruganantham and Jorge Odón? And other than the pill for men, what would our wish list be for what they could do next?