Wednesday, July 17, 2013

.....As if Women Mattered....

Straddling , as I do,  the  middle of the last century and the  the "glorious"  advent of the 21st century, one has been witness to wide lifestyle changes in the lives of Indian women.

I was confused and curious as a child when I would observe the lady of the house sit apart  from everyone, be given her food from a distance, and a child who wanted to sit in her lap was told not to touch her.  No one bothered to explain the reason for something that looked like a punishment. Then a few days later, the same lady would be back to her routine activities. Strangely,  things were a bit lax when erstwhile resident grandmothers were away.

By and by , one learnt the reason and the biology. And today, we are so "progressive(?)  that we sit in front of our TV's , with family, watching  the merits and demerits of various sanitary pads on the screen (shown as experiments in absorbtion of blue liquids), as thin models in pastel clothes leap around . And assorted multinationals vie  to advertise their product with hugely inflated ad budgets and pretend to do a favor to the women of India..  

Like most items foisted on Indian women by multinationals,  these do not come cheap. And are even out of reach of the urban lower middle class.  

Franklin Templeton Investments partnered the TEDxGateway Mumbai in December 2012.  

And I just heard , in the video below, a  gentleman called Arunachalam Muruganantham speak at TEDx.  About his efforts to come up with a decent, lowcost, swadeshi, sanitary pad, which would improve the health, dignity, and even, the ability to contribute to the family income ,  for the Indian woman.  His application of mind, single minded  goal, eventual success, being recognized and awarded by the powers that be, and the fact, that business schools now listen to him, as a respected visiting  academician, despite his so called basic education, is greatly inspiring. 

I have known about Arunachalam Muruganantham for sometime. And I admired his zeal, his questioning of certain customs followed by the women of his house, and his very open research at finding solutions and answers.

 The video simply confirmed my belief  that it needed a guy like him, unconventional in level of education, his attitude towards women, guts, and fearless in the face of an ostracizing rural society, to  design something,  as if women mattered....

His typical basic ignorance, his curiousity, the social rural family ethos, the female hierarchy, his out of the box thinking, he being persona-non-grata , and the final success that had him design a manufacturing setup that would make low cost sanitary pads, (Rs 3 per),   and his decision to sell these to womens' self help groups in villages, including some in the remote Himalayan regions, is an amazing saga.   

But behind all this, is a story of rural India waiting to be told.  A story which has a direct bearing on the education , dignity and health  of rural women.And it needs to be taken forward........

Ladies of Muruganantham's family had it better than most.

According to a study done by WaterAid, an international NGO that works at  improving access to safe water, improved hygiene and sanitation , particularly in rural areas, half our Indian population, which is female, menstruates a total of 2100 hours in their lifetimes. Barely 3% have access to,or  have heard of  or use sanitary pads.
Research done by Maria Fernandes of Wateraid indicated  that rural girls dropped out of school, once they reached menarche, simply because of lack of needed sanitation facilities, like decent bathrooms, sufficient water, and disposal methods. A prominent reason was also being the butt of teasing by boys, who suspected what was happening.  Where the women work in fields and tribal areas, it is even worse. Women from the Saharia tribe of Sheopur actually get locked up in a cowshed during their days, forcing them to use any material around like rags, straw, mud, ash, paper  and so on. Infections abound. A teenager in MP's Dindori district got infected by an insect that came along with the straw she used, and she ended up having her uterus removed. And it is not uncommon, for women to share the "cloths" washing them again and again, not to mention drying them in closed places out of shame, causing them to remain damp.

 In the face of the immense power wielded by multinationals, what Muruganantham has done , stands like a beacon of hope. 

But it is not enough to make sanitary pads available cheaply. Something else must happen to complement Murugananthanam's immense effort.

Our government has made the Right to Education a fundamental right, and education for women is free upto a certain level.   However, education is not about bricks and mortar alone. We have rural schools, where teachers do not go, because basic amenities are missing.  We have rural schools, where the money never reaches where it is intended. And why rural, even certain municipal schools in Mumbai have insufficient and inadequate sanitation facilities for girls, with almost zero maintainance for those that exist.

We need to think innovatively like Muruguananthanam did. Involve women in planning the educational facilities at the village level.  Local NGO's might be able to do a women census. There may be green construction methods that might be used to build schools, with as much emphasis on physical well being of girls , as mental. Maybe, instead of the usual channels whereby construction happens with shortcuts , and no supervision, and checking, corporates can be roped in to participate as part of their CSR.  It is not enough to put out ads on television, and announce schemes.

And instead of launching nationwide schemes , politically named , with no vigilance and followup, maybe a trial scheme can be launched, say across 3-4 districts of , say, Maharashtra.  The government can do its bit by making this attractive for corporates by giving  them tax concessions and the like. Get feedback from those for whom the schools are meant.  Involve the women of the area in self help groups that work on Murugunanathanams product.  Make it attractive for girls to come enjoy schooling and learn, like their brothers.

Then have someone from the corporate side come and evaluate after a few years and report. Make improvements. And then maybe, replicate  it in some more ditsricts, armed with the practical knowledge.

Like Murugananthanam, there will be a lot of experimenting, a lot of what he calls T and E methods.  Like in his case, there will be traditional opposition, folks will suspect your motives. So called political leaders will get into the act.

 Like Murugananthanam, there will need to be sustained efforts and no giving up.

However, unlike Muruganathanam , I am not sure the corporate types will get invited on TEDx. 

But I for one, will certainly look forward to some interesting stuff on television,  which will NOT be  about fair girls in fairer clothes, talking about changing mindsets , so one multinational product can be replaced with another.

It will be wonderful film, showing how some girls now enjoy going to school in a remote corner of the state, learning and interacting, with thoughtfully planned schools and facilities and   mothers urging them not to miss school. How their health situations have improved, and how their family income has possibly improved because someone somewhere works at a Muruganathanam-inspired self help group manufacturing the pads........ and how one of the intangible side effects has been a kind of sensitization of the males  of the village.....   something we badly need even in our urban areas today.


Submitted as an entry for the Indiblogger-Franklin Templeton Investments "The Idea Caravan"  Contest.   


  1. How strange I should read this...have been following up low cost sanitary napkin market for sometime now. Besides Arunachalam, MIT folks have been designing napkins using banana fibre and is shaped as per women's body. The first version of Arunachalam was not very woman friendly to wear..whats more the entire project could be made into an microenterprise project for women SHGs. So rural women can earn while they wear -:) Thanks for promoting and bringing awareness to this issue!

  2. He has set up some example for everyone to follow. I loved his presentation as well.

  3. Congratulations for your win, Ma'am!
    Loved your detailed & well-written Post! :)