Of the 355 million menstruating women in India, only 12 percent of them use sanitary napkins, according to a study done by A.C. Nielsen. The vast majority simply cannot afford them, and so they turn to a variety of unsanitary options ranging from newspapers and dirty cloths to sand and corn husks.
When Arunachalam Muruganantham discovered his wife was using old rags because she couldn’t afford proper sanitary pads, he embarked on a years-long journey to create affordable and sanitary options.
The documentary Menstrual Man follows Muruganantham as he fashions a “uterus” out of a football “bladder” filled with blood to personally test his product. Once he crafted the perfect pad and a machine to produce them, he began distribution. Now, his machines have been sold to NGOs and women’s self-help groups in over 1,300 villages. Each machine can dispense 200 to 250 pads per day at an average of 2.5 rupees (USD$0.037) each, serving over 3,000 women and employing ten as manufacturers, according to a report by the BBC.
Menstruation in India has long been a taboo subject, and women on their periods are essentially treated as untouchables, barred from kitchens and mosques alike because they are considered to be unclean. This culture of shame is not only damaging to young women, but also incredibly dangerous.
In a country with a historically poor reputation for sanitation, this issue is even more pressing for menstruating women. The stark lack of access to sanitary options leads to serious health consequences. Tech in Asia reported that 70 percent of all reproductive diseases in India can be traced back to poor menstrual hygiene.
A handful of startups have followed in Muruganantham’s footsteps, such as Aakar Innovations and Saral Designs, which both manufacture affordable sanitary products. Aakar set up over 20 “mini factories” that employ women as both supervisors and producers manufacturing affordable sanitary products. Saral sells low cost sanitary pads and installs vending machines for convenient and discreet distribution in schools and public restrooms.
Women with internet access can also order monthly subscriptions on Those5days.com, an online distributor of a vast array of sanitary products. The startup boasts that it serves over 20,000 postal codes, ensuring that women in the most remote regions have access to their products.
As affordable sanitary products become more and more available in India, the hope is that social and cultural attitudes will shift, and the shame surrounding menstruation will subside.