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Social Issues
Women’s Day: Femme International, An Ingenious Machine and The Menstrual Health Revolution
March 6, 2014
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Arunachalam Muruganantham is the inventor of a machine that rural women in developing countries can use to make cheap sanitary pads — which in turn enables them to work, go to school, and go about their own lives the way women in the developed world have been doing for decades.

In India, where menstruation is often taboo, it's a rare man that makes menstrual hygeine his life's work. BBC Magazine has a fascinating, in-depth look at Muruganantham's story and the device that's changing women's lives.

Briefly: soon after Muruganantham got married, he discovered that his wife, like many other women in India, didn't use sanitary pads because they were just too expensive. He was shocked at how much these pieces of cotton cost — and decided to design his own version, which could be made better and cheaper than the versions currently available for sale in India.

Turns out Muruganantham's project was harder than he expected. It involved years of research, testing with volunteers (including himself, using a fake uterus made out of a punctured football bladder filled with goat's blood) and tinkering until he devised a machine that could manufacture suitable pads at a low cost. Muruganantham found that the mystery ingredient in a successful pad is cellulose, which can be made from tree bark. His machine breaks down the bark into cellulose, and the cellulose into a fluffy cotton-like material that can be used to form the sanitary pads. He eventually made 250 of his machines and, with help, he distributed them to rural communities across the country.

Having one of his machines in a community means women can produce and sell menstrual pads themselves, cutting out the need to buy them at stores at marked-up prices — and creating a new industry in the process. Women can also barter, making them even more accessible. Many of the machines are purchased and distributed by NGOs or given to girls' schools. 

Over on Slate, Emily Bazelon offers an appreciation for Muruganantham's work, along with a smart analysis of what it might mean for women in developing nations around the world.

And here you can watch Muruganantham's TED Talk from 2012, in which he tells his story:

The ambition and scope of Muruganantham's project is impressive, but he's not the only one fighting for a menstrual hygiene revolution. One of the emerging players in that field is a new Canadian initiative, Femme International, which grew out of a school project at Humber College last year.

Femme International was started by Sabrina Rubli and Ella Marinic, two postgraduate International Development students. The organization aims to empower girls in developing countries by educating them about menstrual health and helping them manage it. So far they have partnered with schools in Kenya to teach girls about their bodies — and to supply them with "femme kits," which contain reusable menstrual cups (a cup that collects, rather than absorbs, menstrual fluid) that make it possible and safe for them to go to school every day of the month.

Femme International teaches girls at a Kenyan school about their bodies. (Photo: Femme International)

"Mensuration is the number one reason why girls miss school," Rubli told "This is an issue that affects 50 per cent of the world's population and there's little being done about it. We partner with schools to teach girls about female anatomy because they never get the opportunity to learn how their bodies work. And we give these girls femme kits which contains everything they need to manage their period in a safe and sustainable way."

Femme International distributed 200 femme kits in 2013. The cups are reusable for up to 10 years, which makes them an effective long-term solution to the problem. And the organization is looking to expand.

"The feedback from the girls has been really positive," said Rubli. "And the school administration has acknowledged that this fills an important gap."

International Women's Day falls on Saturday March 8. 


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