The man who wore a maxi pad and changed lives
Arunachalam Muruganantham at work.
"Logic has nothing to do with oppression," pointed out Gloria Steinem in her essay If Men Could Menstruate. If men were the bleeders, she argued, periods would become "enviable, worthy, masculine". Men would brag about how long and how much they menstruated, academics would find sportsmen won more Olympic medals at that time of the month, and sanitary supplies would be government-funded and free, although "of course some men would still pay for the prestige of such brands as Paul Newman Tampons, Muhammad Ali's Rope-a-Dope Pads, John Wayne Maxi Pads and Joe Namath Jock Shields - 'For Those Light Bachelor Days'."
Alas, free sanitary products don't seem particularly high on either Labor or the Coalition's to-do list. And instead of trading on their ability to turn us into boxer-cowboy heartthrobs, pads and tampons are branded primarily on their superiority at hiding our shameful secret and priced according to how convincing that branding is.
But while the vast majority of women would probably rather eat a tampon than have a conversation with a male colleague while holding an unused one in their hand, there's a privilege involved in that embarrassment. Across the developing world women and girls who are equally horrified to think their period might be public knowledge are forced by the shortage of sanitary supplies, or by straightforward poverty, to use unhygienic and unreliable substitutes ranging from household rags or banana leaves to mud or ashes. For young girls in countries like Uganda, who often don't own underwear, things get a bit more complicated.
The UN Children's Fund estimates that one in ten African schoolgirls either skips school during menstruation or drops out entirely, while the Times of India reported last year that only 12 per cent of Indian women use sanitary towels, while 23 per cent of Indian girls drop out of school after starting their periods. Women's education faces plenty of challenges but a recent study found that providing girls with pads halved their level of absenteeism and upped their levels of self-esteem and concentration in one easy move (those Libra ads might have something to them after all).
Some people are taking notice of this sort of evidence. In India, a new programme will provide subsidised pads for rural women. Meanwhile low-cost, locally-produced sanitary products are becoming more common. Arunachalam Muruganantham, India's "Tampon King", has created a low-tech manufacturing system which can produce 1200 sanitary pads an hour which are sold at just a third of the cost of brands such as Proctor and Gamble. He would presumably also get the Gloria Steinem nod of approval, having strapped on a bladder of animal blood in order to road test his own product. Cheap sanitary goods producers have also begun to spring ups round Africa, including Rwanda-focused Komera and Uganda-based Afripads - which, like Muruganantham's Laadli, also create jobs locally making the product.
Such projects haven't been snag-free: Komera found Rwandan women were skeptical about the quality of cheap, locally-produced pads which didn't look much like the imported brands they knew. Laadli has been excluded from the Indian government's subsidised pads programme, while Mr Muruganantham himself found he was excluded briefly from his own family, who mistook his obsession with his product for complete madness.
But for all its flaws, cheap reliable sanitary protection has the potential to significantly improve the lives of women and girls who have limited access to sanitary protection by giving them the freedom to go to work or school all month. Problems such as the stigma attached to menstruating remain - a Steinem-inspired world full of menstruating women high-fiving their fertility as they meet outside the ladies' may not be around the corner, but in the meantime every female deserves to experience the gentle toe curl that accompanies the tampon handed run-in with a male acquaintance.