The Mean Reds

In the developing world, something as natural as menstruation still elicits ignorant reactions, and causes girls to drop out of school—perpetuating the cycle of disempowerment and poverty.


AsianScientist (Jun. 3, 2016) – As about half of us intimately know, being a woman comes with its own unique physiological set of issues revolving around procreation. Because of this, women have to go through their periods about once a month for about thirty odd years of her life. It’s all part of the joy and burden of being a woman. Periods come with all sorts of things: chocolate cravings, shouting matches, and the mean reds.

As I mentioned in my previous column, many girls around the world do not have access to proper sanitary hygiene, which, in turn, prevents them from going to school. This perpetuates into a cycle of disempowerment and poverty.

In India, some 300 million women lack access to safe menstrual hygiene products. Out of a population of 580 million women in the country, this is an absolutely staggering figure. How do you even begin lifting someone out of poverty before helping her get through her monthly period?

The story of India’s Menstruation Man

I have a select few favorite stories, and this is one of them. Its title is: “India’s Menstruation Man.” It’s a story about a man named Arunachalam Muruganantham who one day saw his wife using old rags as menstrual pads. He was shocked and wanted to impress her by making her some sanitary pads. On his first run, he simply cut cotton wool into the same sizes as the pads sold in shops and wrapped some cotton fabric around it, before presenting it to his wife as his first homemade prototype. It didn’t work.

Muruga turned to experimenting with other materials, while also discovering that he couldn’t only keep waiting for her to have her period every month, so he turned to a group of medical students near his village. The girls actually tested his pads for him, but were too shy to report back. This couldn’t work either.

So he tested it on himself—by using an artificial bladder of animal blood connected at his hip that would flow into a pad in his underpants. However, this naturally led to bloodstains and drew the eye of the neighbors. His wife was not able to stand the gossip and left him.

It took Muruga two years to find the right material and another four to find a way to process it. Muruga’s machine is priced at US$950, compared to the US$500,000 imported ones. There is a small revolution happening as we speak, with Muruga having plans to export his machines to other developing nations, and absolutely refuses to be bought out by corporations. His machines have created jobs for women, and enabled many more to earn their livelihood while menstruating.

How amazing is that?

Bad blood

In a world where still so many women lack access to menstruation pads, it is also no wonder that even fewer go to school. In India, one out of every five girls drops out of school when their periods begin, according to research by AC Nielsen and New Delhi-based Plan India. Girls in Kenya miss 4.9 days of school each month because of their periods. Most girls lack access to change their sanitary menstrual materials at school, leading to stained clothes and embarrassment. The girl’s education suffers, along with her health. While it is unclear what the link is between menstrual hygiene and other cervical diseases are, it is not acceptable that so many girls don’t have access to clean pads or places to change them.

India’s Ministry of Health is working to remedy the situation by selling pads at a subsidized rate of six rupees per pack of six to girls, under the name Freedays. Other foreign research groups are looking into using locally-sourced materials, such as banana stem fibers.

Girls and women also probably need to relax a little regarding their periods. Like the medical students in Muruga’s story, girls and women are incredibly reticent about speaking up about menstruation.

Being on your period has always been labeled in almost all cultures as “impure” and “dirty.” On some level, almost all cultures have difficulty discussing periods at all. During the 1996 Boston Marathon, the winning runner Utta Pippig ran the race with visible blood and cramps, and commentators were rendered absolutely speechless: “physical problems,” “stomach pain” and “diarrhea” were among some of the words used to describe her problems.

For five out of thirty days in a month, girls and women will feel a little out of sorts. To let her feel worse and to not let her be able to clean herself up—if that’s not mean, then I don’t know what is.

This article is from a monthly column called Our Small World. Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Source: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Shutterstock.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Annabel is currently a 2nd year Masters in Public Health student at Yale University. She received her MEng in biomedical engineering from Imperial College London in 2010. She spent the summer of 2014 researching substance abuse in Tanzania. She has a keen interest in food, yoga and metal music.

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