A slightly different style of post tonight. Yesterday my friend Deborah Mason (@debdavemason) posted a link to this article on Twitter: The Sanitary Pad Revolutionary.  It’s about a man who invented a simple machine to allow women in rural villages in India to make their own sanitary towels, a development which is transforming not only the lives of the women themselves but also their communities.  It’s a wonderful (true) story and I highly recommend reading it.

There were two things which sprang to my mind after reading this.  Firstly, this whole thing of menstruation, menstrual blood and menstruating women being unclean.  I’d always assumed that this taboo around menstruation came from misogyny and male distrust of women and “womanly things”, but after reading this article I realised that there may be more to it than that.  In a society where keeping things clean and hygienic is hard, particularly in India where, for the poor, many of the tasks of managing their everyday lives take place in the public domain, I can see why menstruation would prove a problem.  If you can’t properly wash and disinfect clothing and sanitary materials, you are going to run the risk of infecting other people, not just via the blood itself, but because the resulting contaminated material quickly becomes a source of infection itself, particularly in hot countries where there is no means of easily disposing of rubbish.  I can see that in earlier societies, the best way of ensuring freedom from infection would be to keep menstruating women away from work which might lead to infection, particularly food preparation. Since simply telling people not to do something is a notoriously inefficient way of ensuring they don’t do it, it made sense to internalise the prohibition, which was done by making the women themselves and society at large believe that they were not just a potential source of infection but actually unclean. Hence the taboo, which would ensure that they kept separate to the rest of society.  In a world in which women of childbearing age would in any event frequently be either pregnant or breast-feeding, this might not be the extreme solution it seems to us.

Interestingly, this taboo is so strong that it still survives today, even in our more “enlightened” society.  Sanitary products are advertised using blue liquid, not red (we mustn’t see anything which actually looks like blood), and metaphors (“Do YOU want to swim, ride horses and play tennis?” For teenagers who never normally did such things, it was a severe disappointment that simply buying a box of Tampax did not somehow result in these activities suddenly becoming magically available).  We cannot be seen to be carrying sanitary products around, so they are prettily bagged up and disguised in floral covers and charming little packets (is it my imagination, or has Cath Kidston put out a range of sanitary towels yet?).  I know that when I go to the bathroom at work, I won’t carry a towel or tampon in my hand, but in my handbag or a zip-up pouch that could as easily be a makeup bag.  Women will leave a box of tampons on the bathroom shelf, but not on their desks in the office.  And it is seen as somehow the mark of a modern man that he will buy his partner’s sanitary towels.  None of this applies to, for example, tissues, although arguably the outpouring of snot and phlegm that accompanies a heavy cold is every bit as unpleasant and unhygienic as menstrual blood.  More on this later.  

Secondly, the solution that Mr Muruganantham came up with.  In our capitalist society, it’s very hard, particularly for large organisations such as governments, to come up with a solution to problems which doesn’t involve that system.  The government was aware that women in rural India couldn’t afford sanitary pads, and that this was causing problems, but their solution was to subsidise sanitary products to make them more affordable.  As a solution, this was partially successful, but it still cost money which could have been used elsewhere, and it didn’t solve the problem that women, for reasons of shame, were reluctant to buy sanitary pads from the mostly male shopkeepers who would stock them.  And as a solution, it was a one-trick pony – it made the pads more available, but that was it.

Mr Muruganantham’s solution, on the other hand, has the mark of genius.  It solves the problem of providing cheap, available sanitary towels: the women make and sell them themselves, to one another.  It provides education about menstruation not just to the women but to their communities.  It provides work for the women, and thus the means for women to educate their daughters; it is well proven that the best way to raise the prosperity and standard of living of a society is to educate its women, and so it lifts whole communities.  And it is sustainable: the sanitary products don’t have to be transported long distances (even if the products to make them do), and the machines are simple, easily maintained, repairable and low on energy use.  It’s a win-win-win situation.  And its inspirational; who knows, but as the world’s resources dwindle and we have to return to a more localised and sustainable way of living, we Western women may end up using Mr Muruganantham’s machines ourselves.

Finally, that taboo against menstruation again.  A couple of years ago I was discussing  the trials of periods for the (hem hem) more mature woman with a female colleague.  It was first thing in the morning, and no-one else was in, but as we worked in an open-plan office we were talking in lowered voices.  At the time I was sitting on a pod of four desks, with a charming, well-educated and generally lovely young man – let’s call him Nick – sitting next to me, and another charming, well-educated and lovely young man – for the sake of argument we can call him Mike – sitting opposite me.  As Nikki and I chatted, Nick arrived and logged onto his computer.  He was clearly intrigued by the fact that we were whispering together and eventually asked “What are you two talking about?”  “Mooncups”, I replied truthfully.  “What’s a mooncup?”  “Google it”, I suggested (slightly mischievously, I admit).  Nick did so, and, after a moment, in the hushed tones of the truly shocked, murmured “Oh…..my G*D!”.  In the meantime, Mike had arrived, and was clearly intrigued.  He came round the desk and read the website over Nick’s shoulder.  There was a minute or two of appalled silence, and then Nick said “That’s……..” he stopped, clearly overcome by emotion.  Mike finished for him: “Horrific.”

Mooncups.  If you don’t know what they are, Google it…….if you dare….   😉