One man's mission to improve women's lives

Man on a mission ... Arunachalam Muruganantham.
Man on a mission ... Arunachalam Muruganantham. 

It's something women in developed countries like Australia take for granted: the ability to access affordable menstrual hygiene products. But women in developing nations around the world are not so fortunate, sometimes using dirty rags, sand or even ash to deal with menstrual bleeding each month.

A man from a poor family in southern India has now become their unlikely hero after inventing a simple machine and method local women can use to make affordable sanitary products.

But the path to success wasn't easy for school dropout Arunachalam Muruganantham. He lost almost everything, including his family, as he worked to come up with a solution to help his wife and other poverty stricken women.

Muruganantham told the BBC he was inspired to do something after he saw his wife Shanthi trying to hide something from him shortly after they got married in 1998. He was shocked when he realised it was "nasty cloths" which she was using during menstruation.

"I will be honest," Muruganantham told BBC. "I would not even use it to clean my scooter." 

According to a 2011 survey by AC Nielsen, Muruganantham's wife was not alone when it came to unhygienic menstrual practices. The survey, commissioned by the Indian government, found that only 12 per cent of women across India used sanitary pads. Poor menstrual hygiene is the main cause of reproductive disease among the poor.

After learning the cost of sanitary pads was prohibitive for his wife and other women in their village, Muruganantham set about designing a cheap sanitary pad himself.

Unaware that women's periods only came once a month, Muruganantham  gave his first cotton prototype to his wife, and was then disappointed to learn that he would have to wait several weeks until she would be able to give him any feedback. 

"I can't wait a month for each feedback, it'll take two decades!" he said.

After failing to find any reliable female volunteers (his sisters refused), Muruganantham decided to test the pads himself by wearing a "uterus" made of a football bladder, filling it with goat's blood from a friend who was a butcher.

"I became the man who wore a sanitary pad," he says.

Muruganantham wore the blood-filled bladder under his clothing as he went about life, constantly testing out the sanitary pad's absorption rates.

But after seeing him wash his bloodied pads in a public well, the whole village assumed he had contracted a sexual disease.

Eventually Muruganantham's dedication to creating an affordable sanitary pad became too much for his wife, and she left him.

"I had become a pervert - so you see God's sense of humour," he says in the documentary Menstrual Man by Amit Virmani. "I'd started the research for my wife and after 18 months she left me!"

When his mother also tired of his obsession, she left too.

"It was a problem for me," he told BBC. "I had to cook my own food."

Finally, Muruganantham was forced to leave his village after locals became convinced he was possessed by evil spirits and planned to chain him to tree in order for him to be "healed". 

"My wife gone, my mum gone, ostracised by my village," he says. "I was left all alone in life."

Incredibly, Muruganantham was determined to keep going.

Finally, two years and three months after starting his plight, Muruganantham finally discovered what normal sanitary pads were made of - cellulose, from the bark of a tree.

It was several more years before he finished creating the machinery and method to break down the cellulose, shape the material into a sanitary pad and disinfect it using ultra-violet treatment.

Muruganantham made the machinery simple to operate in the hope women would be able to take jobs operating the machinery as a way of helping them out of poverty.

After hearing of the machinery and method Muruganantham had created, staff at the Indian Institute of Technology nominated him for a national innovation award. Out of 943 entries, his was the winner. The school dropout was presented the award by then Indian President Pratibha Patil. 

"It was instant glory, media flashing in my face, everything," he says. "The irony is, after five-and-a-half years I get a call on my mobile - the voice huskily says: remember me?" It was his wife, and they later reconciled. His mother also resumed contact with her son. 

Despite his success, Muruganantham is not interested in making money from his work. 

"Anyone with an MBA would immediately accumulate the maximum money. But I did not want to. Why? Because from childhood I know no human being died because of poverty - everything happens because of ignorance," he told BBC.

Muruganantham spent the next 18 months building 250 machines, which went to the poorest states in Northern India. Eventually the machines spread to 1300 villages in 23 states.

Each machine is responsible for converting 3000 women to pad usage, and provides employment for 10 women. They can produce up to 250 pads a day which sell for about 2.5 rupees (or 5 cents) each.

"My aim was to create one million jobs for poor women - but why not 10 million jobs worldwide?" he says.

Muruganantham has plans for his machine to be delivered to 106 countries including Kenya, Nigeria, Mauritius, the Philippines and Bangladesh.

"Our success is entirely down to word-of-mouth publicity," he says."Because this is a problem all developing nations face."

Watch Muruganantham's TED talk below.