Standing behind the counter was a tall light-skinned lady. She was beautiful, deep brown eyes and a thick mass of eyelashes to go, just like the artistic definition of her cheek bones, they didn’t look real. “400 naira,” she said, as she smiled and suddenly, her smile became annoying. “Madam,” I said, “how is Always Ultra 400 naira?” I was perplexed! Can’t I have my period in peace again?
Thinking about it in retrospect, I ask myself, if I felt this way, how did Jesutofunmi a student in a public school where I once taught, who couldn’t afford 30 naira lesson fees feel? At least 65 percent of girls and women in Nigeria cannot afford sanitary pads. And this is a story of many girls and women around the world who cannot have their period in peace.
“It all started with my wife,” Arunachalam Muruganantham said. He sought to find a cheaper way for girls to absorb their menstrual flow when he found out that his wife used old rags as sanitary towels. She did this because if she bought actual sanitary pads, she wouldn’t have enough to feed the family. Muruga was shocked at this new reveal, so he did the next best thing. (No! he didn’t go out and buy pads for her). Muruga decided to produce sanitary pads for his wife all by himself.
To him, making sanitary pads was a walk in the park, but this walk in the park took him six years. At first, he cut cotton wool into the same size as the average pads sold in retail shops and wrapped a thin layer of cotton around it. He used his wife as his muse to test his prototype, but according to her, the pad was useless. This motivated Muruga to look for other ways to make effective and cheap pads. His motivation to achieve this goal, which took six years of his life, turned him into a local joke – people started avoiding him.
To effectively experiment with new materials to make the perfect pad, he needed volunteers to test his prototypes. With just his wife as his muse, he had to wait once a month before his prototype could be tested, and this was obviously not effective. So, he asked medical students attending a university near his village to try his pads. Some tested the pad, but were too shy to give detailed replies. So, the daring Muruga, took the bull by the horns and decided to test the pads by himself. He made an artificial uterus built with a rubber bladder and filled it with animal blood and fixed it to his hip. Through a tube, he linked the uterus to the sanitary pad in his underpants. Because of the ineffectiveness of the pads, he was often stained with blood and he began to smell, his neighbours who noticed this concluded that he was either ill or perverted. They gossiped about him, and his wife, who couldn’t take his new status as the community clown, left him. Fortunately, Muruga had a bigger picture in mind. This wasn’t just about his wife, it was about 300 million Indian girls who couldn’t afford sanitary towels. And he was determined to reduce that number.
Six years went by before he could break the code. He found the right material and developed a process to make it, by producing an easy-to-use machine for making low-cost sanitary pads. Imported machines cost over US$500,000, while his machine, is priced at US$950, and takes only an hour to learn how to use. Muruga didn’t compromise on the quality of his sanitary pads, instead, he looked for ways to make the production cheaper. Now, Muruga has empowered other people across 27 states in India to be able to sell cheap but high-quality sanitary pads having sold 1,300 machines already. The great thing about this is, more people will be able to afford his machine, more people will make affordable pads and more jobs will spring up in the process.
He isn’t just an activist for affordable sanitary pads, he is also an activist against big corporations whose only aim is to maximise profit for themselves. This activism shows in his refusal to sell his machine to several corporations, preferring to sell to women’s self-help groups instead.
There’s the argument that sanitary pads should either be subsidised (and not taxed) or they should be free. These are great arguments arising from the expensiveness of the product and so should not be dismissed. But the truth is this, pads cannot be totally free, neither can subsidy make them affordable for some, if the shelf prices remain at 400 or 250 naira. Making pads generally affordable without subsidies should be the first thing. This affordability will help NGOs that want to give them out for free to buy more pads and make the lives of girls and women easier. It will help the government if they deem it necessary to make pads free or subsidise them. Why? If the commodity is cheap, it will be easier if the government wishes to subsidise it. The government will not have to spend as much money on subsidy if sanitary pads are at 150 or 120 naira as opposed to 250 or 400 naira, depending on the brand. Then, people like Jesutofunmi who cannot afford it and people like me, who are mad at the price but can still afford it anyway, will be able to have their period in peace.
I can remember sitting down on a hardwood surface one afternoon, facing the playground as I watched school children raise dust into the hot April air. Chiamaka, an ebony-skinned SS1 girl and one of my students, walked up to me with unusual timidity and asked me if I had tissue paper. I knew exactly what she wanted to use it for, but what struck me is this, when I am on my period and do not have an emergency pad with me, I do not ask for tissue until it becomes my last resort. Chiamaka cannot afford sanitary towel, she told me this when I asked her if she could; this is when Always Ultra was still 250 naira. You might be thinking to yourself, “let her use the tissue.” But if there is a better alternative out there, why does she have to? This is the same thing as water or food! If there is clean water available to some, why can’t it be available to all? Why should Chiamaka have to settle for less? Her poverty isn’t enough excuse because just like water, sanitary pads are a necessity, not a luxury. When we think of it this way – that it is not a luxury but a necessity – then more people will not just join hands to distribute expensive pads for the sake of goodwill but more people will start to question the high price of sanitary pads like Muruga did and look for ways to make them affordable, even if it takes six years or more.
Today, Muruga is one of India’s most popular social entrepreneurs and TIME magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2014. And he has started to sell his machines to the developing world who are in need of them.