It’s time to break the taboos when it comes to women. From menstruation to speaking up against harassment, as Oprah Winfrey said in her speech at the Golden Globe Awards, “a new day is on the horizon”. Amid all this talk of women empowerment, what with period leave campaigns all over social media and the hype around a film on menstruation set to release early next month, it is easy to get emotional. Interestingly, a sobering thought comes from none other than real-life padman Arunachalam Muruganantham, who has been pushing for menstrual hygiene and sanitary pad access to women across the country. “In India, less than 10% women use sanitary napkins.” Padma Shri awardee Muruganantham, who hails from Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, is the inventor of a low-cost sanitary pad making machine, a device that he came up with after extensive research on the use of sanitary pads, material required to manufacture them, machines used for mass production, and feedback from women, whom he asked to use and review his prototypes. The result was a machine that is not only cost-effective, it produces organic cotton pads that decompose naturally. Speaking with FE, he says what he is trying to achieve is menstrual hygiene awareness. “Our mission is to create not less than a billion sanitary napkins and convert India into a 100% sanitary napkin using country from the current level of less than 10%.” How mammoth a task that is is put in perspective when he states: “India is not built by 14-20 metros; India is built by six lakh villages. That’s what we are targeting. India has a big population, so even to make 1% difference in my lifetime is not possible. But I will try throughout my life.” The recent national family health survey (NFHS) IV revelations that say as many as 62% young women in the country in the age group 15 to 24 years still use cloth for menstrual protection just reiterates the gravity of the situation. Talking about the film, Padman, which is based on his life, he is happy that it will push awareness on the issue. “It is the first time a mainstream hero is talking about menstrual hygiene. India is more than interested to watch this film and I am sure it will create awareness,” he says. But he refuses to be the centre of attention. “The movie is all about women, menstruation and hygiene awareness… so whenever you see that they are talking about me or using my name, it is not my story, it is about women.” He would be happy to know that his work has inspired many other entrepreneurs to explore this market, including some that manufacture biodegradable and cost-effective sanitary napkins
that tackle the dual problem of affordability and waste management of menstrual hygiene products.
Saral Designs, a Mumbai-based start-up, is one of them. Founded in 2015 by IIT graduates Suhani Mohan and Kartik Mehta, Saral aims to use their product design, machine technology and innovative delivery mechanisms to bridge the gap between the talk and the walk when it comes to the penetration of sanitary products in the rural market. “We work for the women in tier 2- tier 3 cities, who can neither afford nor access mass market menstrual hygiene products,” reveals Sharanya Hariharan, who heads marketing at Saral Designs. Their products are 70% biodegradable and priced at Rs 6 per pad. Plans are afoot to make the product 100% biodegradable. “We are testing some materials to achieve a completely sustainable product,” shares 27-year-old Suhani Mohan. Delhi-based company Heyday, however, has achieved organic and biodegradable sanitary napkins, but it comes at a cost, with napkins priced at over Rs 10 per pad. Founder Deepanjali Dalmia, who launched Heyday in September last year, says they are still learning the ropes. “Our first target are women in urban areas, as they more familiar with menstrual hygiene products. We can only percolate to rural areas once we have a sustained market model in place,” she says, adding that distribution and retailing is a big challenge. Saral Designs has tackled this by taking the product to the end user directly with a door-to-door distribution mechanism. “We reach rural women through sanginis (healthcare workers),” reveals Hariharan.