Friday, October 5, 2012

quick hit: "India’s improbable champion for affordable feminine hygiene"

This fantastic article showed up the Globe & Mail today:
In 1998, Mr. Muruganantham was newly married and one day he noticed his wife, Shanthi, skulking out of the room carrying rags and newspaper. When he asked her why, she first told him it was none of his business. Eventually she admitted that she used the paper when menstruating. "I said, 'You're an educated woman, why aren't you using sanitary pads?' " She responded tartly that if she and her two sisters-in-law were all to buy them, the family budget would suffer. [...] Menstruation is a treated squeamishly in most societies, including this one. Yet all over the world a lack of access to affordable and safe sanitary products keeps girls out of school, prevents them from working and makes them vulnerable to infections that develop when they use items such as corn husks, old newspaper or rags packed into underwear. [...] Mr. Muruganantham launched an improbable one-man revolution to bring low-cost feminine hygiene products to the women of India. [...] After seven years of toil that cost him almost everything, he perfected his sanitary pad, and the machine to make them – and has created an enterprise that employs 7,000 women across India and converted more than 3.5 million to the use of sanitary pads.
Things that I love about this story:

1) The old-school spirit of invention. Maybe I've been reading too much Steampunk lately, but I'm so into the charm and toil of an innovator like Muruganantham who gets his head piqued by a problem and can't set it aside until he's found a way to solve it, despite cultural and social sanctions and the indignity (and stench) of covering oneself in rotting goat's blood.

2) That this didn't become an, "Ah ha! It takes a man to solve a woman's problem!" kind of deal. Yes, Muruganantham did something which the women in his region were probably unable to do - the severity of the social sanctions against him were bad enough, imagine trying to do that without even the protection and freedom afforded by male privilege? As it was, he was chased from his village and had to live in a cave. A woman in his village would likely have been forbidden from pursuing it at all. And yet, at the end of the day he also knew he needed women's involvement to make his invention worthwhile - only women could convince other women to use it and bring its application to fruition. There appears to be no gender-baiting or stupid "gotchas!" in the story or the reporting on it, which fills my heart with joy.

3) Location, location, location. Specifically, it was a local problem and a local resident came up with a solution using local resources. Imagine the impact on the economy if someone outside this region, some celebrity or high school or charity or what have you, had gotten it into their head that "OMIGOSH, those poor women have no pads! Quick, everyone, let's raise money to send MILLIONS of pads to those poor ladies! Hey, big branded corporations which make pads, why don't you DONATE A BUNCH and then you can look awesome while getting good profile in your consumer base! YAAAAY, we saved them!" Then you have lots of non-biodegradable plastic pads which can't be manufactured locally, and therefore don't contribute to the economy in manufacture or purchase, or indeed to the innovation profile in India itself. Short-term solution with no long-term utility and possible negative consequences. Otherwise known as traditional colonialist charity.

At one point, I did think, "A shame he has to go through all that bother for something that's already been invented and widely distributed all over." But then I realized that not only did Muruganantham come up with a perfectly useful product of his own, he also improved on existing processes by focusing his design on small-scale, portable manufacture - something a great deal more exportable and useful in developing countries all over the world. Re-inventing the wheel sometimes leads to a better wheel!

 4) This is where I just about started weeping: "rather than launching into large-scale sanitary-pad production, he sold his machines to rural women at a price barely above cost". This follows right on from the previous point. Because of his actions, not only does access to affordable hygienic menstrual pads exist in this area, but he has also created an opportunity for self-directed employment for women as well. Not as his employees, either - he's just a vendor for the machine, which women can buy to start their own companies. Seven thousand women are now employed in various capacities selling his menstrual pads in India. At least six women (probably more, but the article only mentions these six) have learned how to drive so they can do deliveries. Muruganantham has used his skills, his passion, and, yeah, some of his leveraged social privilege, to truly contribute to the empowerment of women in his country on their own terms. (As if empowerment on anyone else's terms is actually empowerment!)

And, frankly, this is why unbridled capitalism won't free the oppressed. Muruganantham's failure to capitalize on his invention would be the shame of traditional investors. I can just hear Kevin O'Leary's scorn from here. Increased economic autonomy in a capitalist context is a realistic win for the women of rural India, but just like whatever social privileges aided Muruganantham in his invention (along with what is clearly considerable dedication, empathy, and intelligence on his part! Not under-cutting his achievements - just contextualizing them), such leverage is only an instigator of social change, a way of getting it off the ground and protecting it when it is vulnerable - it is not, in itself, change. The training wheels are not the bicycle.

Three cheers for Arunachalam Muruganantham. Sir, I promise I will think of you fondly, at least once a month.

1 comment:

  1. "Sir, I promise I will think of you fondly, at least once a month."

    Love it.


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