ARUNACHALAM MURUGANANTHAM, who invented one of the world’s first low-cost machines used for making sanitary napkins. He even wore one himself to experience what it is like to wear a sanitary pad. A school dropout from Coimbatore, He decided to challenge a taboo and provide sanitary napkins at a low cost to women across the country, who couldn’t afford to buy them, especially those in rural areas. Born to a handloom worker, he was familiar with the workings of the machine and also understood how cotton should be utilized in a pad. The asli Padman, who now employs 21,000 women in his pad-making initiative, speaks to us about the stigma around menstruation and how it has been a prolonged battle for him, but that’s worth it.
Back 2004, only 5% of women in India used sanitary pads. A few years later, a survey was conducted and the number had increased, but only marginally. Women in a lot of remote areas used rags, newspapers, dry leaves and ash during their periods, which make India the second highest number of cervical cancer cases. Despite the presences of multinational companies that manufacture pads, these issues were not grabbing as much attention as they should have. Menstruation is seen as the greatest taboo, not just in India but across the globe. Mothers don’t talk to daughters; daughters don’t talk to mothers, no one talks to the men about it and no one goes to the doctor. Today, we are talking about it, but it has taken us many years to get so far.
People believe it’s all secretive and no one must discuss it. There are fears attached to menstruation which are often unfounded and lead to taboos. For instance, in our country, there are regions where it’s believed that if by chance, someone steps out on it, her mother-in-law will die. Such deeply entrenched beliefs stop the subject from becoming a public debate. In so many places, menstruating women are kept in a secluded room, as if they quarantined. There are cave-like enclosures in very poor conditions, which are unhygienic, to say the least. Taboos that have passed down from generation have stopped these topics from coming out in open. Even advertisements use a blue liquid to depict menstrual blood. Though there is one ad every five minutes, the number of women using pads is still quite low. The idea is to approach women, one-on-one, to break away from the taboos around using pads. Even today, a monthly grocery list will have everything, but not sanitary pads. People will pay thousand to doctors, but not few hundred to secure hygiene.