For those of us who grew up in the United States, memories of “the talk” and the accompanying videos that most of us begrudgingly sat through to introduce the concepts of puberty and the menstrual cycle are now a source of petty jokes and shared laughter. The awkwardness of that classroom full of prepubescent girls now seems of miniscule importance in the grand scheme of our lives, and as adolescents and adults, it is simply considered common knowledge to know how to safely and efficiently cope with our “monthly visitor.” But sadly, as with too many women’s health issues, that common knowledge was never extended to countless women around the world. The depth of this lack of information runs the gamut from not knowing how to safely control bleeding to mismanaging pain to even failing to understand what the menstrual cycle is. There is no doubt that the often intense cultural taboos surrounding menstruation are behind a great deal of women’s ignorance about their own bodies, and it is women who are suffering the long-term health consequences as a result.
The issue of menstrual hygiene has garnered recent media attention thanks to the remarkable efforts of the so-called “Menstrual Man” — a man named Arunachalam Muruganantham from rural India who had the audacity to try to address the intense need for safe feminine hygiene care products in an environment hostile to both him and to all menstruating women. In spite of having never completed school and the fact that he isn’t even the “proper” gender to be discussing (no less taking action on) women’s health issues, Muruganantham developed a basic machine to create disposable sanitary napkins on a relatively small scale. What is even more incredible is his deep understanding and compassion for the needs of the women he is trying to reach; having taken next to no profit from his invention and without even a patent on the machine, he focuses instead on reaching out to women directly in the most remote, under-served communities and empowering them to take control over their own physical health. At the end of the day, he has discovered not only a means by which women can safely manage their own menstruation but also a way to empower women on a greater scale, since his machines are then used by community members to make and sell feminine napkins at a much more affordable cost than those in stores. In a world full of adversity for women, it is stories like these that offer women’s health advocates a ray of hope for the future.
While the story of this isolated individual’s remarkable contribution to society is truly inspirational, it is critical that we take his life and message as a call to action rather than an easy solution to a wide-reaching and complicated problem. Aside from the physical health consequences of improper sanitation practices, cultural taboos around menstruation prevent women and girls from growing and developing to their full potential by taking them out of schools, keeping them from attending religious services, and even restricting their ability to provide food and water for themselves and their families. In societies where women already struggle with empowerment, taking girls out of school and ostracizing them due to an overarching lack of information about the menstrual cycle is a severe blow to progress that will need to be addressed, likely through education and nuanced community-level interventions. Without such changes, it is doubtful that the world will see the improvements demanded by the Millennium Development Goals to promote gender equality and empower women.