Madeline Bishop

Jayashree Industries: Achieving gender equity one sanitary pad at a time

What if a little, two-by-four inch piece of soft, cottony material could reduce gender inequality and restore the dignity of women in underdeveloped nations?

Indian entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham has discovered that even the most basic sanitary pad can allow for women to more fully participate in society.

But first, he needs to figure out how to get women to talk about their periods. Many women still believe that menstruation is a curse – a belief encouraged by a lack of awareness and social stigma.

More than 32 percent of schoolgirls in South Asia had not heard about menstruation prior to menarche, according to WASH United’s Menstrual Hygiene Day. At the same time, 48 percent of girls in Iran, 10 percent in India and 7 percent in Afghanistan believe that menstruation is a disease.

One in 10 African girls skips school during her period. In Kenya, girls lose an average of 4.9 days per month because of the emotional trauma of menstruation. And in India, 23 percent of girls completely drop out of school when they reach puberty.

Not only are girls social outcasts during their periods, but they are also at risk for infection and reproductive diseases because their hygienic needs are ignored. They often resort to using dirty rags, sawdust, leaves and sand for lack of affordable, sanitary alternatives.

Put simply, a biological process that ensures the continuation of the human race is wrapped in such a powerfully negative and convoluted social stigma that women continue to suffer in silence for one week every month. In societies that can’t afford to provide women with sanitary – let alone effective – hygiene products, it would seem that women are essentially removed from their communities for nearly a quarter of their lives.

Enter “The Menstrual Man.”

Since 1998, Muruganantham has worked to develop an efficient machine to manufacture affordable sanitary pads. When the 29-year-old Muruganantham, a seemingly ordinary school dropout, realized his wife was using dirty rags during menstruation, he made a trip to the store to buy her a pad. The storekeeper secretly passed him a sanitary napkin and charged him an outrageous price that was 40 times the cost of cotton alone. Muruganantham learned firsthand why some 98 percent of Indian women go without hygiene products during their periods.

So he decided to research a solution.

As it turned out, that one simple trip to the store almost cost him his family and his reputation. Muruganantham defied social norms first simply by showing interest in a subject that carries heavy taboos but also by approaching women about their periods. Many thought Muruganantham’s research – collecting used sanitary pads and feedback from women – proved he was either perverted or possessed by an evil spirit.

Abandoned by his wife and mother and ostracized by his village, Muruganantham continued his project. When volunteers ran out, he even tested his experiments on himself.

After more than four years, Muruganantham developed a machine that could turn a hard cellulose board into a sterile sanitary pad – all in a simple, four-step process. Now, anyone can learn to run the machine thanks to Muruganantham’s intentionally basic design.

Muruganantham’s goal was to reach women in the most underdeveloped regions of India, where they could purchase the machine with help from nonprofits and bank loans. The machine is often met with extreme skepticism – bolstered by myths that using pads causes blindness, for example – but over time, it has provided some necessary education about menstrual health in teaching women how to use the pads.

Muruganantham’s wife returned and has become one of his most avid supporters. She now helps to bring awareness to their village. “Initially I used to be very shy when talking to people about it,” she tells BBC. “But after all this time, people have started to open up. Now they come and talk to me, they ask questions and they also get sanitary napkins to try them. They have all changed a lot in the village.”

“The Menstrual Man” and his company, Jayashree Industries, have since distributed 1,300 machines to 26 states in India. His company’s pad-making machine “can deliver livelihood, hygiene and dignity to poor women, and help them strengthen society.”

Several other organizations are taking notice of this issue, as well. Their initiatives seek to reduce the expense of sanitary pads, with a mission to help girls stay in school.

SHE Enterprises provides menstrual health education to both girls and boys. The organization also trains Rwandan women to harvest and process banana tree fibers instead of throwing it out. A local factory uses the fibers to make affordable pads that are sold at a low cost to women and to schools. Since its start in 2011, SHE Enterprises has streamlined its production process, trained nearly 2,000 women in better menstrual hygiene practices, and worked with over 600 banana fiber farmers. Hear founder Elizabeth Scharpf describe SHE’s mission here.

AFRIpads (Uganda) and ZanaAfrica (Kenya) have taken on the problem of female absenteeism from schools by teaching girls about menstrual hygiene management. The organizations also produce their own lines of eco-friendly pads. By making them locally, AFRIpads hopes to “empower women and girls through business, innovation and opportunity.” ZanaAfrica expects that their product will allow women to reclaim 5 million school days, 2 million work hours and $1 million for women to reinvest in their families. It also plans to train 23,000 saleswomen, who will earn an extra income of $100 yearly by 2020.

But the greatest benefit of these efforts is the conversations they start. By speaking up about their periods and teaching each other – and men – about menstrual health, women have the potential to reshape a powerful stigma. And with menstruation knowledge out in the open, women can claim their basic human rights to health, education and dignity.

Madeline Bishop is an intern with Global Envision, a blog focused on market solutions to poverty managed by Mercy Corps. This blog was originally published on Global Envision.

Health Care, Social Enterprise
reproductive health, social enterprise