“Because from childhood I know no human being died because of poverty – everything happens because of ignorance.”
A month ago in the BBC there was an inspiring article, “The Sanitary Pad Revolutionary,” which gave me hope that, however slowly, the conditions for women around the world are indeed improving. The story follows a school dropout from a poor family in India who has created a simple machine that can be used to make sanity pads, as most women in India can not afford them. Best of all, he has created jobs for thousands of women as well. It is “by the women, for the women, and to the women,” an extremely rare commodity in India where inequality is still as harsh as ever.
First, a bit of background to fully understand the context of women’s menstruation in India. When a women is on her period, she is not allowed to cook, fetch water, or be touched. She is, in a way, cast away for the week. During my travels I encountered this, girls who were practically shunned from their family because it was that time of the month. There are also still superstitions about sanitary pads, for instance, believing that a women will go blind if she uses one. Statistics have shown that only twelve percent of women in India use pads, and the rest use unsanitary items to clean themselves during that time. These unhygienic practices have led to 70% of the reproductive diseases in the country.
His project started shortly after his marriage when he noticed his new wife was hiding something from him. They turned out to be dirty rags that she was using for her menstruation. He was shocked that she was using such an unsanitary product, and approached his mother about the issue. At four cents each, his mother explained, there was no way she could buy pads for the whole family. After a bit of asking around he realized that less than one in ten women in the surrounding area used pads, and instead used leaves, bark, and even ash.
He was determined to impress his new wife and make his own cheaper pads for her to use. He fashioned his first one out of cotton and demanded immediate feedback as to how it worked. She told him that he would have to wait a while, explaining that her period only comes once a month (something he didn’t know), so he decided he would need to gather volunteers. Finding volunteers in a country where people still believe superstitious things about a women’s menstruation proved to be impossible, so he decided to try it out himself. Using goat blood and a hand made uterus under his clothes, he realized that, to his dismay, his homemade pad just wasn’t doing the trick.
His village was convinced he was crazy and was planning to hang him upside down from a tree to be “cured.” He avoided this “treatment” only by promising to leave, his village had ostracized him. His wife left him, ironic since he started this project for her, and then his own mother. But he wouldn’t give up, he was determined to see this through no matter what the cost. He spent the equivalent of seventy dollars, money he didn’t have, calling the large manufacturing companies of sanitary pads to figure out what their pads were made of. After two years he finally figured it out, only to realize that the machine needed to break down the materials would cost thousands of dollars. He decided to make his own.
Nearly five years later he had done it, he had created a four step machine that would produce low cost sanitary pads. And that’s not all. He was one step closer to creating jobs for women, like his widowed mother, who, after the death of her husband, began to work on a farm. The one dollar a day she was making was not enough to support her four children though, which is why he had to leave school at fourteen to work. He received an award from the President of India, and, five years after leaving him, got a call from his wife who had escaped the unwanted attention and vicious comments to live with her mother. His mother, and then the rest of the village who had criticized and condemned him eventually came around, realizing what a wonderful thing he had succeeding in creating.
Though he was set for fame and fortune, he was not in it for a profit. “Imagine, I got patent rights to the only machine in the world to make low-cost sanitary napkins – a hot-cake product,” he says. “Anyone with an MBA would immediately accumulate the maximum money. But I did not want to. Why? Because from childhood I know no human being died because of poverty – everything happens because of ignorance. He believes that big business is parasitic, like a mosquito, whereas he prefers the lighter touch, like that of a butterfly. “A butterfly can suck honey from the flower without damaging it,” he says.” Part of the reason he has been successful is because he has put others first, the women of India in particular, instead of becoming greedy and thinking only of himself and the profit he could make.
During the next 18 months he built 250 machines which he brought to the poorest regions in Northern India. It was hard for him to talk to the women as it is such a conservative society. He had to first gain permission from their father or husband, and could only speak with the women through a blanket. Despite superstitions and other cultural difficulties, over time the machines began to spread throughout 1,300 villages spanning over 23 states. He has made sure that in each case it is the women who produces the pads and sells them directly to the customers. He has also begun to work with schools as almost a quarter of female students drop out once they begin menstruating.
“Why wait till they are women? Why not empower girls?”
His project is far from over. “My aim was to create one million jobs for poor women – but why not 10 million jobs worldwide?” he asks. He is expanding to 106 countries across the globe, including Kenya, Nigeria, Mauritius, the Philippines, and Bangladesh.
One of my favorite aspects of his life the article touches on is the fact that he would have never invented the machine had he been educated. “Luckily I’m not educated,” he tells students. “If you act like an illiterate man, your learning will never stop… Being uneducated, you have no fear of the future.” His wife agrees with him in that regard, adding that if he had completed his education he would be just like every other man, working for someone else for their daily wage. Instead, he had the courage to start his own business, employ his own people, and do his part to make his country a little bit better.
When asked what his proudest moment was he told the reporter it came after he had installed a machine in a remote village in Uttarakhand, where, for many generations nobody had earned enough to send their children to school. “A year later, he received a call from a woman in the village to say that her daughter had started school. “Where Nehru failed,” he says, “one machine succeeded.””
To read the full article click here.