Of Menses and Men

Written by Erica Lim, edited by Ng Kah Gay

Interview by Cassie Lim, photography by Nawan Poovarawan

Arunachalam Muruganantham speaks in a fast and focused manner. Better known as the Menstrual Man, the mythology of success associated with the humourous moniker masks the hard work, pain, and pursuit of a calling which many would consider fruitless. For the tenacity of his quest, Muruganantham is a hero to countless Indian women who have been censored into shame.

Menstrual Man 2

Muruganantham’s dogged determination may seem strange, but his childhood reveals the building blocks of the person he was destined to become. After his father’s untimely demise, his mother became the sole caretaker for his large family. He dropped out of school to support his mother, taking a series of odd jobs to supplement the family income throughout his adolescence. This experience gave him an intimate understanding of the difficulties faced by poor Indian women, and a rugged resilience to withstand harsh circumstances.

Muruganantham jumps right into revealing the bloated state of NGOs in India; he declares that his company, Jayaashree Industries, is a firm. The company sells low-cost machines that manufacture sanitary napkins, enabling disadvantaged women to gain access to sanitary pads while earning a livelihood.

With 2.2 million NGOs, or approximately one for every six hundred Indian citizens, he deems it appalling that none of them explicitly address the provision of affordable sanitary napkins. In fact, the Indian government is more concerned with “sending a man to the moon”, a fact which he openly mocks and exclaims, “You fools! First (do something about) sanitary pads… then send a man to the moon!”

He lists the common substitutes for sanitary towels, which read like a grocery list of industrial waste. Pensively, he remarks, “There are many women in India using sawdust. Dry leaves. Newspaper. Ash, even sand.” Muruganantham reveals that India is the country worst afflicted by preventable reproductive tract infections (RTI), explaining, “Women don’t tell that they’re having a problem there [with their genitals], even to their families. The moment they tell, the women will be [accused of] having extra-marital affairs, pre-marital affairs, HIV, everything. That’s why they hide, they hide, they tolerate, and become victims of cervical cancer.” Only 5% of Indian women use sanitary napkins, many of whom live in urban environments.

Muruganantham’s first experience with menstruation came when he courted his would-be wife, Shanthi. She was carrying something curious, which piqued his interest and stoked his desire to investigate.

It turned out that she was carrying a “nasty rag” to soak up her menstrual blood, which Muruganantham admits he would “not even use to clean his scooter”. It surfaced memories of his childhood: his two younger sisters would use soiled cloths in the toilet which they would hide accordingly, although Muruganantham remained ignorant of what these cloths were used for.

When Muruganantham pressed further, he learnt about the existence of sanitary napkins. He recalls his indignation: “If I buy sanitary pads, I can’t buy milk. It’s a budget scarcity. Then I was shocked–why does buying milk for my family mean not being able to buy sanitary pads?” He then wanted to purchase sanitary napkins for Shanthi as a gift, but “being a village boy, the napkins [were] only available in the medical shop,” with the nearest situated 20 kilometres away. This took place in 1997, but the status quo remains. Sanitary towels remain the exclusive domain of Indian pharmacies, many of which are located in large cities, out of reach to two-thirds of the Indian population who live outside of cities.

Purchasing the sanitary napkins felt like an illicit operation. Muruganantham remembers the shopkeeper taking the package of sanitary pads, spreading a piece of newspaper and wrapping the package like it was contraband. He laughs before saying, “he handled me like a smuggler! And I never asked for a condom, I asked for a sanitary pad. And still now, in India, if you ask for a sanitary towel, even in the big cities in Mumbai, they’ll put it in a brown bag or something.”

Muruganantham carefully inspected the contents of the package, concluding that it was an “eight-inch strip of white substance, like a bandage.” After doing some quick calculations, he deduced that there was a large disparity between the production cost of the pads and their sticker price. “Why not try making a low-cost brand?”

“Then what I did was go to the textile mill, and [buy] some cotton, like the ones you use to wipe your face. I bought a cotton ball, cut it into rectangles,” before presenting it to Shanthi. His initial experiment with menstrual pads had yielded unsatisfactory results, with seven additional years of research studying what made a good menstrual pad. The methodology lacked the high-tech glimmer associated with scientific research: Muruganantham retrieved feedback from female medical college students, and even attempted to simulate menstruation by wearing an artificial uterus. “I’m walking and cycling, I’m trying it out in a small, orthodox village. In my cloth, there is a blood stain!”

Meanwhile, Shanthi questioned his sheer perseverance, suspecting that he might be cheating on her with one of the medical college students. She left unceremoniously, issuing a divorce notice in her place. Although they are happily married again, Muruganantham remembers it being a difficult time.

Tragedy struck once again when Muruganantham decided to lay out the sanitary towels collected from the medical college girls in a small 10 by 10 inch room in his home. “My mother saw this and started crying, ‘Something has happened to my son and he is now totally mad!’ Now I’m seeing maniacs who collect panties and brassieres, and in those days, my mother thought I was the same.” In another twist of personal misfortune, the village people assumed that he “became a vampire at night, drinking girls’ blood.”

“Nothing is changing. Living itself is the biggest challenge in India. Just surviving, you don’t have time to think. If I have nothing to eat for lunch, I won’t speak to you.” Nevertheless, Muruganantham sees the same issue in Japan, Britain and other industrialised countries. “Many ministers, prime ministers of nations, vice-chancellors–big, big university chairmen are asking me: ‘What is a sanitary napkin? Why aren’t you making them in different colours?’” Chuckles are shared between the female interviewers and Muruganantham, a ludicrousness only understood by those who have had menstrual experiences.

Gender issues remain contentious in developed countries, whose ageing populations have exacerbated the labour crunch, highlighting the need for female participation in the workforce. In response, Muruganantham issues a statement to all countries: “Developing nations, you cannot skip half the population! Only if both women and men are working, whatever the country, then you’ll develop. If you just sentence [women] to the kitchen or bathroom, then [the] country will not move.”

Muruganantham believes that gender equality is the key to holistic development. Analysing the average Indian work day, he shares, “All the men in the country work 16 hours a day. If we share, we can work 8 hours each. But if I keep her in the kitchen, then [the men will] just drink and [go to] sleep.” He stands steadfast about the role of sanitary towels in ensuring gender parity, declaring, “Development is about sanitary napkins, not about education. The country, its GDP, is connected to the sanitary towel! If you use the sanitary towel, the girls will go for all their lessons. They won’t be absent from school, they won’t be absent from examinations. They’ll go to universities, go into the workforce, all because of a sanitary napkin and some menstrual hygiene education.”

menstrual man 1

Muruganantham wants to see sanitary towels reach the hands of more women, but declines reaping the profits himself. Spurning the get-rich-give-back philanthropy practised in the West, he says, “I’m going away from charities, away from NGOs. I criticise millionaires’ gifts. Why do you need to appear on Forbes and then decide to go into philanthropy? Philanthropy should start from day one.”

“I want to branch out, I want to spread. I don’t want to vertically scale up. Vertically scaling up is corporate, branching out isn’t.” The company still lacks middle management, or even an office. Despite its lean managerial structure, the firm now operates in 17 countries, including Kenya and Myanmar, and it boasts 876 branches in India alone. Jayaashree (which means ‘Goddess of Victory’) Industries has certainly succeeded.

Moulded by experience and fortitude, Muruganantham rejects platitudes and speaks with great candour. “Both socialism and capitalism are fake, they’re not good models–money is accumulating at the same place.” Instead, he tells us not to “look for opportunities, [for then] you become an opportunist. Look for a problem, then try to address problems with your knowledge.” Don’t just take his word for it–innovate the life you want to inhabit. “I hate methods, I never copy anything. Live a unique life.”

 

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