On February 9, the world’s first feature film addressing period poverty hit screens in India – and Restless Development volunteers, based in rural village Thiruvalangadu, Tamil Nadu, went to see it.
The film, which is a fictionalised account of Padma Shri awardee (the fourth highest civilian award in India) Arunachalam Muruganatham – who revolutionised the manufacture of low-cost sanitary napkins for rural women – is opening up conversations all across India and tackling the taboos long engrained in Indian culture.
A school dropout from a poor family in southern India’s Tamil Nadu – where the current batch of Restless Development volunteers is based – Arunachalam Muruganantham was an unlikely advocate for women’s menstrual health.
In 1998, when discovering the dirty rag his wife used during her period, he wanted to help. The rag was so dirty, he said that he “wouldn’t even clean his scooter with it”, but to buy sanitary pads would mean sacrificing the family’s milk budget. As they couldn’t afford to buy them, he decided to make her one.
Due to not having the correct materials, it failed and despite begging his wife to try each new adaptation he made, she refused, leading him to look for other product testers.
However, due to the culture of silence and shame surrounding women openly discussing menstruation, the village found out about Muruganantham and he lost everything – including his family, home and wife.
He then devoted the next 20 years of his life to inventing a simple machine to create low-cost sanitary pads. And what started as a selfless act of love for his wife’s health and safety turned into an enterprise that has helped millions of rural women in India.
Speaking to moviegoers afterwards, we heard lots of positive feedback, with both men and women saying it was: “very moving, thought-provoking and amazing to see what can come from such a small idea” and “it’s something everyone should see, as many villages are still facing these problems today.”
A woman who brought her nine-year-old daughter to the film also added: “My little girl came with me today as it’s such an important film and definitely worth seeing for girls like her. Everyone should see it.”
However, despite the feel-good ending of the film, the debilitating stigma and statistics surrounding menstrual health still exist today.
What is – and should be seen as – a normal biological process is viewed as impure. In fact, 70% of Indian mothers consider menstruation dirty – further perpetuating the culture of silence surrounding periods.
This is demonstrated in the film when Padman’s wife says “For a woman, there is no bigger disease than shame”, as she admits that her husband openly talking about, making, and testing pads is worse than her getting a reproductive tract infection from using her dirty cloth.
Such the same as in the film, many women are still subjected to social, religious and cultural restrictions in India during their periods, which we learned more about when we held a female-only menstrual health management (MHM) session, made up of national and international volunteers.
We learned that activities such as worshipping in the temple, cooking, touching the water supply, or even touching other people are forbidden for some girls during their periods. In many cases, girls are also made to eat separate meals and though not as common today, some are made to sleep outside of the home in what are known as “menstruation huts.”
We also were told about the “entering into womanhood” ceremony which is held for a girl when she first starts her period, to let the village know that she is “ready for marriage.” This is also something demonstrated in the film and something that the Thiruvalangadu team has witnessed being advertised in our village.
Once a girl has gone through the ceremony and starts having regular periods, she may also face difficulties at school gaining access to safe menstrual hygiene products and clean toilet and changing facilities.
In a study conducted by sexual and reproductive health and rights company, Rutgers, they found that in rural India, 23% of girls listed menstruation as the chief reason for dropping out of school. And as many as 28% of them said they do not go to school during their period because they lack clean and affordable protection.
Compounded by the already high cost of pads, proper menstrual care remains out of reach for most rural women and girls in India. Without access to a basic cotton pad, many resort not only to rags but in some cases ash, newspaper and leaves.
When surveying women in our local community – to both tackle the culture of silence around MHM and research into ideas for our income generation project – ICS volunteers found that 25% of the women we surveyed did not have access to sanitary pads.
And despite the government having a scheme to provide free pads to girls between the ages of 10-19 in Tamil Nadu, we found that 91% of women surveyed were offered no free menstrual hygiene products – and of the 9% who were, they weren’t given enough to see them through their monthly cycle.
Because of this, around two thirds of girls in India only change their menstrual cloths once daily, and as such, around 70% of all reproductive diseases are caused by poor menstrual hygiene practices.
As part of our menstrual health management sessions at schools in the community, we have been really “pushing the pad” and explaining not only the biological process to young girls, but also working with them to bust the myths surrounding periods and how they can manage their time of the month in the safest possible way.
We’ve also been implementing MHM into our income generation for women project, by researching into ways in which they can make reusable sanitary pads to both use for themselves and sell to others.
When asking the women in our survey if they’d be interested in learning how to make reusable pads, 79% said yes – so this is something that we are looking to bring to the community by conducting research, meeting key stakeholders and raising awareness about the free training available to rural women.
We are also working on a session for those who are happy continuing to use cloths (around 50% of women use them) to deliver in local women’s self help groups, on how to properly sterilise the cloth after washing it. As shown in the film, many women tend to wash their cloth and hang it out to dry underneath a saree, meaning it doesn’t get sterilised by the sun, which can lead to infections when it comes to using it next.
It has now been a week since seeing Padman at the cinema and our team is still brimming with ideas and plans on how we can further develop our MHM sessions and advance the needs of the women in our community.
As Padman himself said: “Woman strong, mother strong, sister strong – then WHOLE country strong.”
Shannon Hodge is an ICS volunteer with Restless Development, based in India.