Alisha Thapa works as a community manager in MixORG, New Delhi. Also generates content and strategy for brands. She runs campaigns for brands’ engagement and presence on online media channels.
Now that the entire nation knows the unsung hero, let’s learn about how his uncomfortable journey actually began. Silence on Menstruation in our country remained extreme until ad commercials on sanitary pads started erupting one after the other along with a revolution of the Television industry in the 1990s. That’s how women in urban India developed an interest to replace the cloth with a sanitary pad during menstruation days. The availability of the product became prominent in nearby stores.
Sadly, the situation wasn’t the same in rural India. For a very long era, women in villages and small towns relied on dirty rags and leaves and horrifyingly even used ashes and sand. Certain customs made their lives more difficult such as hiding menstrual cloth in dark areas which did not allow sterilisation of cloth from sunlight, living in a separate room during menstrual days and restriction from doing many activities. Girls dropped out of the school once the period would start or remained absent for those five days due to the lack of toilets in school. The multinational companies had entered India but failed to pitch the rural market due to lack of three As–Awareness, Affordability and Accessibility.
The biggest hurdle that was deeply rooted in all other disadvantages in India was menstrual taboos that differed with every different region. Irrespective of rural or urban society, certain customs still prevail in large amount that is followed during menstrual days such as not entering the temple, skipping religious ceremonies at home, not allowed to enter the kitchen and many more. Three decades have already passed by in public awareness and selling of sanitary pads in our country. However, various surveys report that only 12% of women population use sanitary pads and the remaining 88% rely on other unhygienic alternatives.
As an answer to overcome all the aforementioned complexities, a common man from the southern part of India struggled for many years and finally in the year 2006, he succeeded in innovating a machine that changed the game of menstrual hygiene in our country.
The man behind a thoughtful initiative in women’s menstrual hygiene in India did not initially begin his remarkable journey with an intent to lead a full-fledged movement. He once had a simple and decent lifestyle in the beginning years of his life. Born in 1962, Arunachalam as a young boy grew in poverty in a small village of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India. His father’s early death and his mother’s single-handed hardships eventually left him with no option but to drop out of school. From the age of fourteen, he was involved in various jobs such as tool operator, farm labourer, welder and many more to support his family. Today, he is a social entrepreneur who has designed a low-cost sanitary pad making the machine. An awardee of Padma Shri, he is credited for innovating grassroots mechanisms for generating awareness about traditional unhygienic practices around menstruation in rural India.
So, what made Arunachalam think deeply about menstrual hygiene? How did he come across the idea of designing sanitary napkins for women? Well, his marriage with Shanti and the aftermath gave birth to a genius that developed within him. In the late 90s shortly after his marriage, one day Arunachalam noticed that his wife was hiding something on her back. She showed him the dirty cloth stained with blood and Arunachalam was shocked to discover that the dirty cloth was used during menstruation days by his wife. He himself felt that he would never consider using that dirty cloth to even clean his scooter. On wife’s part, it was the other household budget that made her discard the use of sanitary pads. As a gesture to impress his wife and take care of her personal hygiene, Arunachalam travelled to the town and bought a pack of sanitary pads for his wife. As he touched the pad for the first time, he knew that the cotton was the primary material needed for a pad. He could also make out the serious amount of price being charged for a 10-gram cotton-made pad.
With a hope to design affordable pads for his wife as well as the women around his village area, he started off his honest and small attempt which we know today as a worldwide phenomenon. In his first attempt, he made a pad completely made out of cotton. After he faced series of unwillingness to wear and test the pad for feedback from his wife, sisters and the medical college girls, he decided to wear and test the product on himself. That is how he officially became ‘the man who wore a sanitary pad’. Interestingly, he created an artificial uterus from a football bladder and filled goat’s blood in it. He then attached a pipe to the bladder and directed it towards the pad he wore. He walked, cycled and ran as he pumped the blood from the bladder and every time sensed a foul smell of the blood. Day by day, his involvement in the research deepened. On the other side, his activities were wrongly judged by the village people and he was even addressed as a madman. Some avoided him and some declared him to be suffering from the sexual disease as he washed his blood-stained clothes in a public well. Bigger problems awaited him. Within the eighteen months of his research, his wife left him with a divorce notice being slapped on his face as well as his mother left the house. With the ever-growing superstitious beliefs of the villagers, it eventually became tough for him to live and he was finally ostracized from his village. He was left all alone in the world, but nothing could stop him or weaken his determination.
However, the cotton pad he had managed to design couldn’t produce an output like any other branded sanitary pad. Lack of knowledge and resources and inability to speak or understand English were some of the first hurdles in his method of research. He would send those branded pads for laboratory analysis and everytime cotton would be detected as the main material, whereas his own cotton creation was failing. With the help of a college professor, he started writing and asking the big manufacturing companies. In reply, he was being asked about the kind of plant he owned and to which he had no clue of what the companies were asking. Subsequently, he started saying that he was a textile mill owner in Coimbatore and he was interested in setting up a business in sanitary pads. Therefore, he required few samples to start with. That statement did work in his favour. It took him more than two years to discover the material used in a sanitary pad and it was cellulose extracted from the bark of a tree. Very soon he realised the requirement of a machine to break down the material. Buying a machine meant the expenditure of thousands of dollars. Therefore, Arunachalam came up with an idea to design a machine and it took four years for him to prepare the machine.
He showed his innovation to the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras where scientists were doubtful as they did not see any potential in the machine to compete with other innovations. Nonetheless, IIT entered his machine in a competition for a national innovation award. Arunachalam’s machine stood first out of nine hundred forty-three entries. He was presented an award by the then President of India Pratibha Patil.
His next big move is to reach the wider world and he plans to expand to as many countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, Bangladesh and many more. Inspired by his breakthrough innovation, the film Industry in India initiated a film on February 2018 titled as ‘PadMan’.
Useful Tips and Information on Menstrual Hygiene
At times, even women living in urban areas or metropolitan cities are unaware of basic hygiene that are important to follow during periods. Lack of limited education on the subject, hesitance against the free flow of communication and taboos are some of the barriers that overshadow the basic hygiene knowledge of menstruation. Take a look below and see if you knew them before:
- You should change your sanitary pad once in every six hours. During heavy flow, you could change in shorter time. Wearing same pad for longer duration could lead to problems such as skin rashes and infections
- Wash regularly to avoid bad odour and spread of germs
- Once you have decided to throw a used pad, do it properly. Refrain from flushing the pad down the toilet as it may cause a blockage. Wrap it well before you discard it. Then wash your hands properly.
- Apply an ointment after a bath if you suffer from a pad rash. In case if it doesn’t heal, visit a doctor.
- While travelling, always carries extra pads stored in a clean bag or a pouch. Carrying some tissues and a hand sanitizer will be useful as well as a bottle of water will keep you hydrated.