Pad Man: Why still unseen in the ‘Eyes’ of Women?

Talking about ‘Gender Equality’ is one of the profitable ‘businesses’ in the contemporary development industry around the world. Even though the civilized society disagrees and discourages trading of human, in this modern development industry, the business communities, sometimes named as civil societies, buy and sell the problems of people: poverty, discrimination, violence, etc., and also adding to it they sell people if and when possible.

Women and children specially are sold and bought, as evidence of human’s sufferings, or icons of success, or items to generate funds, and to maintain the expansion of the industry. In every business, whether production or services, there are market and value chains, where there are producers, intermediate actors, sellers and buyers. The raw materials, after going through many changes, reach the buyer with a high price, which ultimately has to be paid by the buyer for the knowledge, strategies and competencies of the intermediate persons, while the producer at the end receives nothing.

Similarly, when problems of poor, vulnerable, under privileged and marginalized communities are identified, the problems become an avenue of earnings for a larger crowd who are in between the problem and those victimized through the problems, irrespective of finding solutions for the problems.

Though the world proudly spoke, and is still continuing to mention about the ‘Superman’, ‘Spiderman’ and the ‘Batman’, it did not notice so much of the recently screened Bollywood movie ‘Pad Man’ of an Indian veteran director R. Balki. Featuring well-known actor Akshay Kumar and actress Sonam Kapoor in the lead, the film which was released on 9th February, 2018, earned Indian Rs. 10.26 crore on its first day. 

Talking to the Business Insider on December 18, 2017, Akshay Kumar stated “I didn’t want to make a documentary; I wanted to make a commercial film so people can see it. It’s a film you can take your children to, even though it talks about sanitary pads. It’s a universal subject. Nobody has ever tried to touch this subject”. It was said that the main objective of the producers of this film was to raise awareness among a wide audience, to eradicate the prevalent superstitions in India surrounding sanitary pads.

The film is based on the short story ‘The Sanitary Man of Sacred Land’ in Twinkle Khanna’s book The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad, which is based on the true life story of the ‘man of the decade’ Mr. Arunachalam Muruganantham.

Twinkle Khanna saw this man; hence she wrote a story. But did other women notice Arunachalam Muruganantham? Did they applaud him? Did women led organizations appreciate his work?

Arunachalam Muruganantham of Coimbatore, in Tamil Nadu was a technician by profession who studied up to Grade 8 in formal education in school. He discovered that menstrual hygiene as one of the major health problems faced by women and young girls in India. Through his own family, he learnt that the lack of availability, accessibility and affordability of menstrual hygiene products for women led to a huge number of social and health issues, and related economic issues. After his marriage, he found out that his wife was into the habit of using unhygienic rags. “It all started with my wife. I would not even use it to clean my scooter”, said Muruganantham to the BBC. He witnessed his wife’s sufferings and her ill hygienic practice with the rags during menstruation.

Muruganantham’s thoughts for a way out on this issue began in 1998, when he eventually realized that the usage of rags during menstruation was not due to lack of awareness alone, but was directly connected to the daily income and expenditure of the households. Many women and girls around him were seen not having the money to buy hygienic pads from the market due to the high pricing of the product and family economic pressure.

This responsiveness of Muruganantham willed him to initiate the innovation of ‘low cost sanitary pads’, through various researches he carried out by himself until he found success. He even went to the extent of buying a pad from the nearby town, when he noticed the shopkeeper’s hurry to pass it on, as if it was some illegal product.

Muruganantham’s journey in finding an affordable path to create cheap and hygienic sanitary towels for women living in villages, did not turn out to be easy on him. He had to face reproach, shunning, humiliation and disownment by many known and unknown, especially from women.

His wife abandoned him. His own mother rejected him. Villagers including women banished him. “I was left alone in life” were the words of Muruganantham.

According to the Ministry of External Affairs in India, it was revealed that only 12% of women across India used sanitary pads during the year of 2011. Deccan Sunday Chronicle had reported that as per a National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2015-16, about 57.6 percent of the Indian women use sanitary napkins, and 62 percent women in the age group of 15-24 years still rely on a cloth during periods. This problem is not seen only in India, but has become a common threat to most of the countries in the world, with most parts of Asia and Africa as targets, and some parts of the West facing this issue due to high taxation of the product.

As reported by https://www.statista.com – the United Nations data and Simmons National Consumer Survey (NHCS), a high percentage of women do not use sanitary napkins, and they have also reported that, in the UK as sanitary products are still taxable, women pay 5% as VAT on each purchase. Plan International UK has found that 1 in 10 girls between the ages of 14 and 21 are unable to afford hygiene products in Britain. The Plan International also reported that while 1 in 7 girls struggle to be able to afford sanitary wears, another 1 in 7 girls borrow pads from friends due to lack of affordability.  This issue is what is called ‘period poverty’.

World Health Organization [WHO], through a survey conducted in 35 cities all over India during October 2017, reveals that more than 45 percent of women, considered menstruation as a taboo in the Indian society, and 36 percent women felt uncomfortable in buying sanitary napkins from shops in the presence of other customers.

Women were silent towards this societal taboo; Women were silent when a man came forth to change it.

Culture and customs of these societies do not let the men engage in purchasing this product for their mother, sister, wife and daughter. Women and girls also show shyness in letting the male folks know about the menstruation times, or requesting the men to purchase the sanitary napkins from the shops for them. In most of the societies the majority of the men do not feel comfortable in purchasing sanitary pads, as the world and its communities have excluded this product from everything else in the market.

Yet with today’s modern selling techniques and facilities, these sanitary pads have placed in an isolated place in every supermarket, which eases women and girls with the purchasing of the item without embarrassment. However, are these supermarkets accessible and affordable to all communities? And the answer to this is the reason behind Arunachalam Muruganantham’s bold step.

Instead of being a business entrepreneur, Muruganantham chose to become a social entrepreneur. Losing the support from his own family, did not discourage Muruganantham but his many tough years of research carried out at the backyard of his motor bicycle workshop, found a solution to the issue ‘period poverty’ for women not only in India, but around the world. Muruganantham’s innovation addresses the prime issue of ‘period poverty’ which is the economic and social access to sanitary napkins. Machines that manufacture these low cost sanitary napkins are now seen in 27 States of India, as well as in 17 other countries of the world. Besides providing solutions for menstrual hygiene issues, this inventive step of Muruganantham also offers employment opportunities for poor and rural women. “My aim was to create one million jobs for poor women in India – but why not 10 million jobs worldwide?” states the ‘pad man’ Arunachalam Muruganantham.

 

Women received low costs pads; women received employment so they could buy a pad. Yet was this recognized by the women who only see the negatives of the poor women, and blame men for it?

UNFPA defines the term gender as to the ‘Economic, social and cultural attributes and opportunities associated with being male or female’. Gender while culturally valued and interprets persons’ biology, it socially and politically determines the role, status and power that persons should have. Accordingly, the respective societies have given socially shaped and politically determined roles for both the men and women. These are given not only by the men in the society, but also by women. What Muruganantham experienced; rejection, exclusion, non-acceptance, non-appreciation, and non-recognition are also results of ‘socially shaped and politically determined roles’. He was ignored and disregarded by the society of women as he was a man who was not supposed to talk about women’s menstruation.

Gender Equality refers to the fair treatment for both the assigned sexes – ‘male and female’, considering the different interests, needs, priorities and aspirations of men, women, girls and boys and the socio – cultural environment that affects each of them, so that they all can equally enjoy the benefits of development including equal access to and control of opportunities and resources to lead a dignified life.

Gender equality needs to be seen both as a precondition for, and indicator of, sustainable and people – centred human and social development. The Tri-part strategy which is considered as an evidence based approach in gender equality comprises of (a) gender mainstreaming, (b) women empowerment, and (c) engaging men in accountable practices at policy and operational level as well as in private and public spheres.

Muruganantham, as ‘man’ in this gendered society, has shown his accountability towards women. But, the question is whether women have shown their accountability towards Muruganantham by recognizing of the solution based system introduced by him.

Muruganantham’s contribution to women’s health was recognized by the Indian Government and he was honoured in 2016 with the ‘Padma Shri’ award (the fourth highest civilian award in India). Muruganantham was also named as one among the hundred most influential people in the world by Times Magazine in the year 2014. Several international prestigious universities such as the Harvard University invited Muruganantham to share his story with them.

Even though he was recognized by the academia and the poor women of India, it was very obvious that none of the National or International Women Organizations had seen his contribution to uplift the health and social condition of women.

Muruganantham did not use his invention and machines to make money; turning away all offers, he made sure that the machines were not sold to earn profit, but to be used to benefit women. “I’ve accumulated no money but I accumulate a lot of happiness”, stated the inventor and social entrepreneur.

A society is formed by both men and women. And both men and women are responsible and accountable for all that happens in this society. Today we say the slogan ‘men dominated society’. Yes; most of the societies in the world have been dominated by men for centuries, and is still the same. The society allows the men to dominate. And most of women continue to be silent, because this society that lets the men to dominate includes also women. Women like Muruganantham’s wife who forsook him; women like Muruganantham’s mother who shunned him; women like those from Muruganantham’s village who thought he was having unlawful affairs or was possessed by an evil spirit; women who forgot to recognize a man’s struggle and commitment to bring change for women.

Women have to stand up for women. Women have to stand up against the negative societal notions. Women have to appreciate, encourage and support men who break the taboos and bans the society has created – as long as it benefits the poor and vulnerable women around.

“……. after five-and-a-half years, I get a call on my mobile – the voice huskily says: ‘Remember me?’ It was my wife”, laughed Muruganantham.  

Dissanayake DMSB | Sri Lanka