Sally Hall: A revolution for Indian women thanks to a school drop-out

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Relax. Be Cool. Touch Free.

Is this the motto of a group of Christians committed to eschewing sex before marriage? Or a badge for ageing Radio 1 DJs who’ve escaped the dragnet of Operation Yewtree?

No. ‘Relax’, ‘Be Cool’ and ‘Touch Free’ are ‘brands’ of sanitary towels, produced on a local scale by women in India at fractional cost - all part of a menstruation revolution that’s been kicked off by India’s ‘Mr Period’, Arunachalam Muruganantham.

In the UK we take our sanitary hygiene for granted. As the old advert goes: ‘Life doesn’t stop just because your period starts’.

(Indeed, we can afford to be frivolous with our panty pads. Last week I saw a hilarious summary of ‘top tips’ sent in to women’s magazines, and my favourite was an improvised pair of slippers – made with sanitary towels. ‘Last Christmas, I didn’t get the fluffy slippers I’d hoped for,’ explained Cathy Stratton, from Leeds. ‘So with the help of some sanitary pads, cotton and thread, plus a bit of imagination, I made my own’. Eccentric, certainly – but I guess they’d come in handy for mopping up spilt tea...)

In India, however, feminine hygiene is a feminist issue. Because very few women can afford, or have access to, sanitary pads, only 12% of women across the country actually use them.This has far-reaching consequences which resonate throughout women’s lives.

Without access to manufactured sanitary products, many women use old rags instead, which can result in pelvic infections. Shockingly, it’s estimated that 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene. The issue is also a significant contributory factor in maternal mortality.

Perhaps the most far-reaching consequence of all is the impact of menstruation on India’s schoolgirls. Without effective means of managing their periods, 23% of girls drop out of school once puberty starts. For several days of every month, millions of girls and women are simply unable to leave the house.

But the women of India now have a saviour – in the unlikely form of Mr Muruganantham. The school drop-out from a poor family in southern India has invented a simple machine that women can use to create effective and clean sanitary pads themselves.

For the past 16 years, he’s dedicated himself to resolving the menstruation problems of India’s female population – at great personal cost.

Mr Muruganantham first became interested in the issue as a newlywed.

‘I saw my wife use these rags which, I will be honest, I wouldn’t even use on my scooter,’ he confided to the BBC earlier this month. So he went to buy sanitary towels for his new bride, only to be horrified by the cost – 40x the cost of the materials required to make it.

‘If I bought these every month, we wouldn’t be able to eat,’ his wife pointed out. So Mr Muruganantham made it his mission to create a cheaper version.

He became so obsessed with the conundrum he decided to test his prototype products himself. With the help of a leaky football filled with goats’ blood, Mr Muruganantham tested each new product by cycling, walking and running with the football under his clothes. When fellow villagers saw him washing out his bloodied underwear, they concluded he’d contracted a sexually transmitted infection. His wife was so ashamed by the scandal that she left him. Some villagers planned to string him upside down from a tree to ‘cure’ him of evil spirits.

But eventually, the amateur enthusiast had a breakthrough. He developed a machine which costs about £700, can produce 200-250 pads a day at a cost of 2 rupees per pad, and employs up to 10 women. In the past two years, Mr Muruganantham’s machines have been set up in 1,300 villages in 23 states – and are now expanding out to 106 other countries, including Bangladesh, Nigeria and the Philippines.

It’s not a subject we talk about much. But when women are liberated in such a transformative way, it’s a cause for celebration. Thanks, Mr Muruganantham, for giving wings to the women of India.

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