by Shobita Parthasarathy
In honor of Menstrual Hygiene day (May 28, for the 28 days of the menstrual cycle), it is important to reflect on how development initiatives focused on menstrual health and sanitary pads in Southern countries actually disempower women as knowers and innovators (I focus here on Indian women).
Today, there are dozens of efforts to “promote” menstrual hygiene across Africa and South Asia, including the manufacture and donation of affordable sanitary pads and awareness sessions for girls focused on the biology of menstruation and the problems with cultural “taboos” and beliefs”. These initiatives are usually framed in terms of girls’ and womens’ empowerment.
One of the most prominent players in this Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) movement is Arunachalam Muruganantham, who developed affordable sanitary pads and built machines for manufacturing them. He sells these machines to women’s self-help groups (collectives composed of 10-15, usually poor, women) across India so they can start businesses selling these pads, become social entrepreneurs, and rise out of poverty.
Even though Muruganantham has a limited education and comes from rural south India, he is praised partially because he fits our stereotype of the intrepid genius inventor. Despite his resource constraints, reports emphasize, he worked tirelessly to develop his technologies and risked shame from his community for working on a taboo subject. He receives even greater adulation because he appears to be doing important work for society, giving Indian girls and women “dignity” and providing them with an opportunity to reach their economic potential.
In recent years, he has been celebrated accordingly. He has been the subject of a Bollywood film, a BBC documentary, and an Oscar-winning documentary short. He’s participated in a Grand Challenges panel alongside Bill Gates. He was profiled in The New York Times. And he has won awards from the Indian government, including its fourth-highest civilian honor, the Padma Shri.
But valorizing Muruganantham simultaneously erases and denigrates hundreds of years of innovation by Indian women. Incrementally, and within their own resource and cultural constraints, they figured out strategies to manage their menstruation. Many have used recycled cloth, which is affordable and discreet. Some realized that substances such as ash are absorbent, readily available, and affordable, and would wrap this in cloth to absorb menstrual blood. Farmers working in the field decided that they could simply bleed freely, into the petticoats they wore underneath their saris.
And some of this womens’ innovation has contributed to the disposable sanitary pads heralded today: they used wood pulp to manage their menstrual blood, and cellulose is the main component of most sanitary pads including Muruganantham’s.
There are no awards or media fanfare for this innovative work performed by women. Because it doesn’t feature markets or lone geniuses, or fit with our traditional narratives of invention, it doesn’t seem to count. And in fact, the philanthropists and NGOs who promote disposable sanitary pads refer to these traditional materials and practices as “shocking” and downright dangerous, rather than celebrating women’s resourcefulness.
(By the way, most proponents of disposable sanitary pads, including Muruganantham, cite an AC Nielsen survey that shows that only 12% of Indian women use sanitary pads. The problem is, we know next to nothing about that study, including the questions asked and how and where the study was done. But its findings have been widely accepted, and used to justify policy and philanthropic initiatives to distribute sanitary pads across India. These are “zombie statistics”, which seem to crop up frequently in international development initiatives perhaps because we are ready to believe the worst about people who live very different lives far from us.)
At a time when we want to encourage female innovators across the world, what kind of message does this framing send? That women in Southern countries need to be saved by tinkerers like Muruganantham and Western development experts.
And that the only technologies that count are developed by men, inside factories and laboratories, and standardized, packaged, and sold.
Indian women are treated as producers, sellers, and consumers, but not as knowers or innovators. Before Muruganantham’s invention and the rise of the MHM movement, it wasn’t even clear that poor and rural girls and women saw menstrual health as a significant problem. It still isn’t.
And it’s ironic to dismiss indigenous knowledge about menstruation as cultural “myths” and “taboos” when there is enormous interest in the benefits of Ayurveda and yoga across the Western world. In fact, Western women are trying to claim some of these traditional Southern practices related to menstruation. The Red Tent Temple movement encourages women to separate themselves during menstruation and use the time to slow down (meanwhile, development experts are horrified when Southern women sleep separately, or refrain from work, during menstruation). Thinx, a startup company with a multi-million dollar valuation, makes “period-proof” underwear and swimsuits that remind us of how rural Indian women have used their petticoats.
Some might suggest that the potential benefits of low-cost sanitary pad outweigh any of these concerns. After all, statistics show Indian girls miss substantial amounts of school or drop out entirely once they start menstruating, and that the traditional means of managing menstruation are unhygienic.
Meanwhile, as womens’ traditional means of managing menstruation are scrutinized and treated as primitive, we do not apply this kind of scrutiny to Muruganantham’s inventions, despite reports that the sanitary pads are of low quality.
And, widespread use of disposable sanitary pads creates a new environmental burden for India. It will generate millions more tons of hazardous waste in a country that already has poor sanitation infrastructure.
So what is the solution? If we really want to develop technologies for empowerment and poverty alleviation in India, we could start by asking poor and rural women about the biggest problems they face in an open-ended way, instead of assuming we know what they are and how to solve them.
We could take their knowledge and innovation seriously, and help to amplify it. And we could begin to imagine avenues to empowerment and innovation outside of the marketplace.
Shobita Parthasarathy is Professor of Public Policy and Women’s Studies, and Director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, at the University of Michigan. She studies the governance of emerging science and technology as well as the politics of evidence and expertise in policymaking, in a comparative and international perspective.