Mumbai & the Menstrual Man

I was reading this article on Salon when I realized that I had not kept my earlier promise: an explanation of how my awareness of India’s Menstrual Man made me a new friend.

When we returned to Mumbai after the main wedding festivities in Alibag, there were still a few evening parties planned. The first event, mere hours after we arrived by ferry through the Gateway of India, was a party on top of an apartment roof where some of the bride’s extended family members live.

Most of the Westerners were staying at the Cricket Club of India — I think that description alone is probably sufficient, but if you need more, just picture a golf club, but with a massive cricket pitch instead of 18 holes. Members of T.’s family, mostly aunts, uncles, and cousins, were recruited to meet guests at CCI and then navigate their herds through the streets of Mumbai to the apartment complex at Nariman Point, a short distance away.

Our guide was M., I believe one of the bride’s aunts (this is a difficult distinction to make because good family friends were often referred to as sister-cousin or sister-aunt, despite having no blood ties to the family). I began our walk to the party by talking to western friends of the groom, and ended it completely enthralled by M.’s story. I will endeavor to recall it correctly:

Years ago, M. met a woman whose daughter had died of tetanus. The woman’s daughter acquired tetanus through a rusted piece of metal. When menstruating, the daughter lacked access to basic sanitary products, so she used an old piece of blouse as a menstrual pad. The blouse had metal hooks, and…you should be able to see where this is going.

So the woman told her story to M., perhaps not realizing exactly what kind of woman she had encountered. M. was moved immensely by the woman’s story. She realized that adequate access to menstruation supplies was a significant, but under-discussed, issue that was keeping girls from learning, playing, doing, and most importantly, living. When M. first spoke to her husband and other men about the problem, they recognized the issues she had identified, but told her that it had never occurred to them that menstruation could be such a hindrance to girls’ growth and activity.

M. and her husband (and if I recall correctly, some other women), began an organization that would distribute, once-a-month, special packages to girls in needy areas. The packages contain sanitary pads, two pairs of new underwear, and other products that M. finds useful. There is a fantastic catch to this system: the packages are dispersed through schools, meaning that girls who wish to receive M.’s packages must attend school to get them.

I listened, totally riveted by M.’s story. My first question, naturally, was something like this: “You know, I watched this great documentary — I think on the BBC — about this Indian man who invented low-cost menstruation products. Do you know him?”

M.’s response was to laugh and grab my hand. Of course she knows Arunachalam Muruganantham, known across India as the Menstrual Man. She knows him quite well, in fact, since he is the main supplier of their sanitary products!

M. was impressed that I knew of Mr. Muruganantham. He is very well-known in India, but he has just begun to gain notoriety in the west over the last few years. But the point of my story is NOT self-congratulation. The point I’ve been trying to make throughout this blog is the importance of paying attention.

In many western countries, particularly in the United States, we are so consumed with domestic issues and local strife. The few times we engage with international news stories is when they are somehow interconnected with activities in our own country. And yes, I can speak to this issue with some authority since my previous job for a year involved watching American news programming on a variety of channels for over 40 hours a week!

The global news we receive is almost always filtered through its connection to the United States. If there isn’t an immediate, relevant link between poor girls in Uttarakhand and poor girls in Missouri, no one’s going to carry that story in the states. (Except maybe NPR or Mother Jones, amirite?) It shouldn’t be surprising or funny that a 26-year-old American woman has read about a national phenomenon in India. This guy is big news! He’s given a TED talk in Bangalore. People know his face and, if not his name, at least his wonderful moniker.

We need to start paying attention. We need to know about the people doing great things outside our immediate scope. If crowd-funding has proven anything, it’s shown that when people are exposed to good ideas, they will support them financially. And things like this always come back to money.

There’s a ton of money circulating around the world, in New York, in London, in the hyper-wealthy pockets of Mumbai (possibly another post). When well-intentioned people with money are exposed to good ideas, they will support them. We have so many examples of vast private philanthropy in the United States that it would be crazy to list them all. From tech billionaires to real estate moguls, many individuals are keen to contribute.

So for me, what this all comes down to is the American media landscape. I want to read about 20 Menstrual Men, and not just the one guy who happened to make it big in terms of news coverage. I don’t have any money, but words are free. In sharing M.’s totally amazing story, and the sanitary pads that connected us (I’ve been waiting my whole life to write a clause like that), I hope to add another voice to those already clamoring for stories about normal people making powerful change happen.


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