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New Bollywood Movie Pad Man Is Breaking Taboos Surrounding Menstruation

New Bollywood Movie Pad Man Is Breaking Taboos Surrounding Menstruation
From TIME - February 6, 2018

A school dropout from a poor family in southern Indias Tamil Nadu, Arunachalam Muruganantham is an unlikely advocate for womens menstrual health.

But when Muruganantham discovered that his wife was using rags during her periods, he wanted to help. The rag was so dirty, he says, that he wouldnt even clean his scooter with it, but to buy sanitary pads would mean sacrificing the familys milk budget. They couldnt afford to buy them, so instead, he made her one.

Muruganantham then devoted the next 20 years of his life to inventing a simple machine to make low cost sanitary pads. What started as a selfless act of love for his wife turned into an enterprise that has helped millions of rural women in India. Once shunned as a pervert, Muruganantham is now celebrated as a visionary. He was named one of Times 100 Most Influential People in 2014, and dubbed Indias menstruation man.

Such is the uplifting tale of Pad Man, a biographical Bollywood movie inspired by Muruganantham and his journey to extricate India from the debilitating stigma surrounding menstrual health, where only 12% of girls have access to sanitary products. Directed by Indian filmmaker R. Balki and produced by writer Twinkle Khanna, the comedy-drama, which debuts in theaters on Feb. 9, is the worlds first feature film to address period poverty, a problem that stretches far beyond India.

If nothing else, Im hoping that it starts a conversation that so far has been cloaked in shame and taboo, says Khanna, a well-known Indian author and columnist who wrote the short story from which the film was adapted, The Sanitary Man of Sacred Land.

When girls get their periods in many parts of India, life shuts down for a week. Because of entrenched taboos surrounding menstruation, what is a normal biological process is seen as impure. Many women in rural areas are restricted from doing everyday activities on their periods such as worshiping in the temple, cooking, touching the water supply, or even touching other people. Compounded by the already high cost of pads, proper menstrual care remains out of reach for most women in India. Without access to a basic cotton pad, women resort not only to rags, but sometimes ash, sawdust, newspaper, leaves, and even cow dung.

These taboos have manifested in a staggering array of statistics. With limited access to pads and safe places to change them, almost a quarter of girls in India miss school during their periods, and over 20% of girls drop out of school completely after reaching puberty. About two thirds of girls in India only change their menstrual cloths once a day, and as such, around 70% of all reproductive diseases are caused by poor menstrual hygiene practices.

Against this backdrop, Muruganantham endeavored to invent a low cost pad. He first fashioned his own cotton pad and asked his wife to try it. He urged his sisters but to no avail. He even tried recruiting female medical students. He ultimately tested the pads himself using a punctured a soccer bladder filled with goats blood.

Read More: How We Can Fight Period Stigma Around the World

In the eyes of the villagers, I became a psycho, Muruganantham tells TIME. The social backlash against him mountedhe was accused of being a pervert and possessedand soon it became too much for his family. He lost his wife, his home, and his entire community. The village chased me out, he says.

Muruganantham persisted. He needed the funds, the right kind of cotton, and the machinery. After four and half years, he invented a simple machine that could turn raw cotton into a pad. I understood this was really important for women, he says. Thats why I never gave up. To date, more than 4,000 of Murugananthams machines have been installed across India and exported to 15 countries.

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