How One Man Started a Sanitary Napkin Revolution

We all love inspirational stories of how ordinary humans triumph over the odds to achieve remarkable things. I would like to share one such story that has touched me deeply.

You might have heard about the sanitary pad situation in India – most women there don’t use them (only 12%, according to a 2011 survey by AC Nielson). There is a great stigma surrounding menstruation in the country, with reports of rural villages isolating women during their menstruation, and girls having to stop school due to these isolation practices.

One brave man stepped forward to address this problem, and started a social revolution in the process. A former school dropout and odd-job worker, Arunachalam Muruganantham was placed on TIME’s list of 100 Most Influential People in 2014, gave a TED talk in 2015, and was awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in India. A 2013 documentary about him was entitled “Menstrual Man”.

arun_menstrual-manArunachalam Muruganantham at his TED talk

(Source: https://tedconfblog.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/7802656418_a94b97734f.jpg?w=900)

You can read an article here and view a short video about him (highly recommended) here.

I will leave you to the juicy bits (sounds like a bad pun but it is not intended) of the story, while I do a breakdown of Mr Muruganantham’s journey towards his invention of a machine that makes sanitary pads. As an inventor, I thought he adopted methods and an attitude that embodied the spirit of scientific inquiry.

A note on scientific inquiry:
The National Science Teachers Association defines scientific inquiry as “the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work. Scientific inquiry also refers to the activities through which students develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world.”

The above does not give the reader a very clear idea of what scientific inquirers do, so perhaps the figure below presents a clearer model. It lays out ten activities that scientists engage in throughout the scientific process, in any pattern that suits their own needs. Mr Muruganantham’s work includes all these activities and is a good real-life model of a scientific inquirer.

harwood1.gif

Activity Model for Scientific Inquiry (Reiff, Harwood, and Phillipson 2002)

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRY WITH THE MENSTRUAL MAN

1 Identify the problem How can he make a low-cost sanitary pad so that his wife will buy and use it (instead of old dirty rags)?
2 Make preliminary observations He made the following observations:

  • Menstruation occurs monthly in women.
  • Most women in his rural village do not use pads, and turn to unhygienic means like sawdust and leaves.
  • 10g of cotton was being sold for 40 times its cost price in sanitary pads.
3 Make prototype, conduct pilot tests and collect data, all in the face of intense social ridicule He conducted the following initial experiments to test his prototype cotton pad:

  • His wife was the first test subject, result was a huge fail for the pad.
  • He approached women studying in the medical college.
  • As the women were not giving reliable feedback, he decided to test the pad himself, wearing it in his underpants and pumping blood out from a football bladder filled with goat’s blood. He started to stink of blood and was seen by villagers washing bloodied clothes at the well. This cost him his entire reputation.
4 Study existing products, even if it meant great sacrifice He collected used sanitary pads from women to observe how they work. He laid them out in his backyard, and his mother stumbled upon the gory sight.
5 Seek help from experts, even when it is beyond one’s means He sought help from the following sources:

  • External labs to analyse the content of sanitary pads
  • A college professor to help him make his enquiries in English
  • Around S$140 in telephone calls to pad manufacturing companies
6 Encounter huge obstacle After he finally found the solution to his problem – cellulose fibres from pine wood to improve absorbency of the pads, he was thwarted by the high cost of the machine available to make the product.
7 Invent own machine to make product He spent 4 years conducting further trials and experimentation to develop his own simple, low-cost machine.
8 Self-Actualisation Success at last! Now to begin the long journey of empowering the poor women in his country to earn a living by making their own (biodegradable) sanitary pads.

A KEY INGREDIENT IN SCIENTIFIC INQUIRY: DOGGED PURSUIT

In the process, his wife left him, his sisters ostracised him, and even his own mother packed her bags and ran away from him. He was even forced to leave his village. Basically, everyone thought he was mad and/or possessed. Yet he soldiered on, and in a span of 7.5 years, came up with an invention that has created jobs for women across 26 states in India.

arun_menstrual man2.pngThe inventor demonstrating his machine

(Source: http://sayfty.com/meet-the-people-extraordinaire-arunachalam-muruganantham/)

WHAT MAKES THIS AN INSPIRATIONAL TALE

What makes this man’s actions exceptional, for me, is Step 8 in the table above. His work did not stop after he obtained the desired results. Nor did he seek self-glorification, but he went about helping the poor, teaching them the simple science behind the making of sanitary pads and using that to improve their lives. (Note: exactly what goes into commercial sanitary pads is a fiercely protected trade secret by profit-guzzling companies, so it remains largely a mystery to the public) I think he is in a state of self-actualisation as he has carved out his own mission in life towards this greater good, changing lives while staying humble and true to his roots.

:)Edith

References:

http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26260978

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arunachalam_Muruganantham#cite_note-ted-11

http://sayfty.com/meet-the-people-extraordinaire-arunachalam-muruganantham/

Attribution:
Featured photograph of Indian women By McKay Savage from London, UK [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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