Sunday, September 6, 2015

Menstruation is something that unites as much as half of the human population, and yet the menstrual experience can be radically different for different people depending on where they live.  Girls growing up in the US are socialized to view menstruation as a nuisance that must be endured with as much discretion as possible, and thanks to the accessibility of disposable, easily-concealed products, this is fairly easy to do.  Since pads and tampons became readily available in the 1920’s and 30’s, it’s been possible for girls and women to remain active in sports, school and the work force without anyone ever knowing that they are menstruating (Scharpf & Kauder Nalebuff, 2011)

For women in other regions, however, the experience of menstruation is much different.  In areas in Africa, as many as half of all school-aged girls are unable to attend multiple days of school each month while they bleed because of insufficient access to sanitary products, and 24 percent of women cannot attend up to 45 days of work per year because of their periods (Scharpf & Kauder Nalebuff, 2011).  As many as 48 percent of girls in Iran believe that their period is a disease and that if they shower or bathe while they menstruate they will be cursed and lose their fertility, resulting in humiliation and isolation.  In Asian regions, women are traditionally not allowed to be employed in professions that involve cooking or working with food, like chefs or grocers, because it is believed that if a woman touches food while she is menstruating, the food becomes contaminated.  In the worst situations, women are forced to use rags, newspaper, leaves, straw, ash, or mud while on their periods to absorb the blood (Goldberg, 2015).

Cultural stigmas are usually the reason why so many girls and women must suffer through their periods each month, and attitudes in India illustrate this occurrence.  In India, menstruating women and girls are considered untouchables and menstruation is seen as filthy and unclean.  Only 7 percent of Indian women in urban areas, and 2 percent of women in rural areas, use disposable sanitary pads; for the rest, cloth rags are still the product used most often for absorbing blood.  Because all of the laundering is conducted at communal washing areas, and because of the shame associated with menstruation, many women and girls are afraid to wash out and dry their blood-soaked rags in public areas.  This leads many women to hide away their rags in their homes.  Bacteria accumulates on the damp, unwashed rags, which women continue to reuse each month, resulting in serious, wide-spread health problems. Across India, approximately 70 percent of all reproductive diseases are caused by poor menstrual hygiene, and maternal mortality death is also indirectly associated with poor menstrual hygiene (Avett, 2015)

Enter Menstrual Man, a 2013 documentary directed by Amit Virmani about India’s menstruation situation.  The film tells the story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a self-proclaimed uneducated, primary school drop-out, who’s decade-long journey began with concern for the way in which his wife and sisters were handling their menstrual rags.  Muruganantham grew up with all of the taboos associated with menstruation in rural India, but he knew that reusing rags was dangerous for women’s health.  So he set out to establish a way to quickly make a large amount of inexpensive, safe, hygienic rags in what he referred to as a “low-cost, sanitary pad movement.”  His efforts caused his rural, conservative, community to shun him, labeling him as a pervert and an outcast.  Eventually he also lost the support of his wife and family.  But Muruganantham was not deterred from his vision.  While his methods were, at times, unorthodox (at one point he began collecting used prototypes of his pads from University women in order to further study the effectiveness of his pads and the needs of the women), he was eventually able to create a very simple, effective, sustainable machine that could produce large amounts of absorbent menstrual padding. 

Muruganantham has since installed 643 machines in 23 of India’s 29 states (Avett, 2015).  The machines are basic in construction making them sustainable and easy to construct and repair, and the facilities that house the machines can be managed with little training or oversight.  He employs at least 10 local women to operate each machine, providing thousands of women with work opportunities in areas where jobs for women are scarce.  Muruganantham is now considered a successful social entrepreneur in India, and he has had many offers from corporations to sell his invention for commercial use.  Despite these offers, he refuses to commercialize, and continues to provide machines to groups of rural Indian women.  His commitment to social justice and aid has led many to hail him as a visionary.

Muruganantham continues to expand his invention and he frequently lectures about menstrual health and the dangers of social stigma surrounding menstruation.  Ultimately, Muruganantham’s innovation is benefiting tens of thousands of girls and women by generating jobs, creating sanitary products, offering a safe place to get these products, and providing peace of mind and empowerment to women all over India.

If you’re interested in watching Menstrual Man, go to the documentary’s website:
Avett, S. (2015, September 3). Meet Menstrual Man, Your New Hero. Retrieved from Bust:

Goldberg, E. (2015, July 14). All The Inconceivable Ways Women Deal With Their Periods Worldwide... And How To Help. Retrieved from The Huffington Post:

Scharpf, E., & Kauder Nalebuff, R. (2011, November 17). When a Period Ends More Than a Sentence. Retrieved from Huffpost Healthy Living: