This is story about a man who created — and wore— a fake, bleeding uterus made out of a bladder and goat's blood. This is also a story about an inventor breaking profound taboos to revolutionise the lives of women. Either way, how a school dropout in India came to invent a cheaper way to make sanitary pads is a tale at once weird and inspiring, as chronicled in a recent BBC article.
Let's start with the fake uterus.
Back in 1998, the newly married Arunachalam Muruganantham bought sanitary pads for the very first time and was astounded to discover how expensive they were. Like most poor Indian women, his wife had been using dirty and unsanitary rags, instead. Cotton itself wasn't expensive, reasoned Muruganantham, so why were store-bought sanitary pads? He set to work tinkering.
The problem was he couldn't test his inventions. His wife was but one person, his sisters refused, and even the medical students he convinced to try were not taking his survey seriously. That's when he realised he could only test on himself, as the BBC reports.
"I became the man who wore a sanitary pad," he says.
He created a "uterus" from a football bladder by punching a couple of holes in it, and filling it with goat's blood. A former classmate, a butcher, would ring his bicycle bell outside the house whenever he was going to kill a goat. Muruganantham would collect the blood and mix in an additive he got from another friend at a blood bank to prevent it clotting too quickly — but it didn't stop the smell.
He walked, cycled and ran with the football bladder under his traditional clothes, constantly pumping blood out to test his sanitary pad's absorption rates. Everyone thought he'd gone mad.
But Muruganantham soldiered on. A breakthrough came when he finally figured out exactly what store-bought sanitary pads are made out of. When he couldn't get outright answers from the companies, he posed as a textile mill owner looking to get into the business and asked for samples. What he got was blocks of the plant fibre cellulose.
Muruganantham speaking at INK Talks
That's where his real invention comes in: a cheap, simple machine that turns blocks of cellulose into useable sanitary pads. "The process involves four simple steps," according to the BBC. "First, a machine similar to a kitchen grinder breaks down the hard cellulose into fluffy material, which is packed into rectangular cakes with another machine. The cakes are then wrapped in non-woven cloth and disinfected in an ultraviolet treatment unit. The whole process can be learned in an hour."
He took his invention to some of India's poorest states, where women are taught to make and even sell sanitary pads themselves. For Muruganantham, his invention is more about empowering women than making money. His work is breaking the taboos around openly discussing menstruation in India and it's giving rural women jobs. He expects to expand to some 106 countries worldwide, including Kenya, the Philippines and Bangladesh. Not bad for a plan that started with a fake uterus. [BBC]