BBC News reports the story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a school dropout in rural India who invented a technology that could vastly improve reproductive health for women. The user-friendly technology relies on simple machines to produce sanitary pads at a low cost, a boon for women unwilling or unable to pay for the higher-priced sanitary pads in stores.
[Muruganantham] discovered that hardly any women in the surrounding villages used sanitary pads – fewer than one in 10. His findings were echoed by a 2011 survey by AC Nielsen, commissioned by the Indian government, which found that only 12% of women across India use sanitary pads.
Muruganantham says that in rural areas, the take-up is far less than that. He was shocked to learn that women don’t just use old rags, but other unhygienic substances such as sand, sawdust, leaves and even ash.
Women who do use cloths are often too embarrassed to dry them in the sun, which means they don’t get disinfected. Approximately 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene – it can also affect maternal mortality.
Unable to get good data or volunteers to test his products, Muruganantham tested the pads himself. Ultimately, he devised a method that allows women to create and distribute the pads themselves.
Four-and-a-half years later, he succeeded in creating a low-cost method for the production of sanitary towels. The process involves four simple steps. First, a machine similar to a kitchen grinder breaks down the hard cellulose into fluffy material, which is packed into rectangular cakes with another machine.
The cakes are then wrapped in non-woven cloth and disinfected in an ultraviolet treatment unit. The whole process can be learned in an hour.
Muruganantham’s goal was to create user-friendly technology. The mission was not just to increase the use of sanitary pads, but also to create jobs for rural women.
Muruganantham’s design has since won a national innovation award, and inspired a documentary about his project. He plans to expand to over 100 countries.