‘International Women’s Day is a day to celebrate social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women’, which gives silenced women a voice. It also recognises and celebrates the courage of women living in countries where their freedoms are restricted, but who dare to stand up for equal rights. It is often the case that women face adversity in many places across the world, so global action is needed to increase and encourage gender parity. Moreover, it makes sense to empower one half of the world’s consumers. In many cases innovation is key to progress: a creative mind makes a unique and innovative connection that others do not, and sends a powerful message to others that they too have something important to offer.
In India, where opulent wealth lives cheek by jowl with grinding poverty, innovation is critical to help bridge the gap, especially when faced with global challenges, such as climate change and sustainable development. This is where frugal innovation comes into its own. A marketer would tell you that frugal innovations are ‘value-sensitive design and marketing strategies that bring clever products, made from limited resources, within the reach of billions of poorer consumers’, but that does not tell the real story: frugal innovation is the triumph of the creative spirit and remarkable ingenuity in the face of seemingly intractable difficulties. Crucially, frugal innovation is giving women the opportunity to compete on equal terms with men, and there are many inspirational examples of women who have overcome defensive opposition and angry adversity to improve the lives of millions through their creative efforts. Ironically, however, sometimes the same barriers that prevent women from giving life to their creative instincts are put in the way of men as well, which brings us to the remarkable story of Arunachalam Muruganantham’s Sanitary Napkin Machine.
In 2011, according to the Indian Times the Indian Government commissioned a survey by AC Nielsen which found that only 12% of women across India use sanitary pads. High infection rates, social stigmatism, and, in some cases, cruel and humiliating ostracism are the fate of the other 88%. The effects are not just physical and emotional because 23% of young girls drop out of education due to lack of affordable sanitation products, and lack of toilet facilities that affect their mobility, so social and educational advancement of women are victims too. Those women who do use cloths are often too embarrassed to dry them in the sun, which means they don’t get disinfected. Approximately 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene – it can also have a devastating effect on maternal mortality.
In this context, Muruganantham showed remarkable fortitude, tenacity, and enlightenment in the face of almost insuperable resistance to bring about hygiene awareness and empowerment of women in Indian villages from Tamil Nadu to Madhya Pradesh, to Bihar and Uttarakhand. Muruganantham, a social entrepreneur from Tamil Nadu, developed a machine that produces quality sanitary napkins at a low cost. This minimalistic and simple to use machine uses basic raw materials which cuts down the cost of manufacturing, this also makes it easy for the women to maintain the machines themselves. Only three to four people are needed to produce approximately two pads per minute. Although there has been a significant increase in the use of sanitary pads, the machine has also created jobs for rural women and has empowered women to make low cost sanitary pads for their own use and sell them to other women. Moreover, these women can provide valuable information on how to use them. Some school girls are now making their own sanitary pads.
Sadly, Muruganantham’s invention came at great personal cost – he nearly lost his family, his money and his place in society. However, despite intense and occasionally violent resistance caused by ingrained cultural bias, the machine has now been accepted in 1,300 villages in 23 states across India, and is now expanding to 106 countries across the globe, including Kenya, Nigeria, Mauritius, the Philippines, and Bangladesh.
On International Women’s Day, Muruganantham’s story further emphasises the importance to celebrate the enormous strides women have made across the globe towards gender equality, and that sometimes influential change can come into fruition with a pinch of determination and creativity.