PADDING THE SHAME BARRIER
ARUNACHALAM MURUGANANTHAM, 54, COIMBATORE
In a country where menstruation is still spoken about in whispers, Arunachalam Muruganantham’s contribution deserves a double round of applause. The cheerful school dropout has redefined standards of menstrual health for women in rural India by designing a machine that produces cheap sanitary pads. Arunachalam’s journey started in 1998, when he noticed his newly married wife Shanthi hiding the cloth rags that she used during her periods. Shanthi never dried the ‘bad clothes’ (as she referred to them) under the sun after washing them. “I realised that the cloth didn’t even stand a chance of being disinfected. There was so much of shame attached to a natural bodily process,” says the maverick inventor who was once a workshop helper. Aghast at the unhygienic condition of the material and taken aback at the cost of sanitary pads sold at retail outlets, Aruna Chalam decided to create a cheaper alternative. Over the next few years, his obsession to create an effective, cost efficient sanitary pad led to him being ostracised by his family and village, especially when they discovered that he spent hours analyzing used, soiled pads sourced from medical students. When he didn’t find volunteers to test out his first batch of pads, he punched a football into the shape of the uterus, drilled a hole in it, filled it with goat’s blood obtained from the local butcher, strapped it to his groin and wore the pad under his clothes to test its absorption. Though ridicule stalked him, it couldn’t quite impede him. He wrote to sanitary pad manufacturers and, after persistent enquiries, got a sample of the cellulose that went into the making of sanitary towels. Over the next couple of years, he developed a machine and a low-cost method that could be used to make sanitary pads. In 2006, Arunachalam’s invention was one of the entries submitted by the IIT Madras for a national innovation award. His innovation stood first among 943 entries. Today, his sanitary machine has become widely popular in 23 states in India, besides creating jobs for 21,000 women in over 2,000 villages. In 2014, TIME magazine listed him among the 100 Most Influential People on the planet.
REACHING THE GRASS ROOTS
SAMIR SOMAIYA, 45, MUMBAI
Industrialist Samir Somaiya, scion of a noted, philanthropist business family, has been no stranger to altruism. His grandfather KJ Somaiya had founded the notable KJ Somaiya Trust that has been working for over four decades to create a just and equal society. Today, in addition to being chairman and managing director of Godavari Bio Refineries Limited and president of the Somaiya Trust, Samir divides his time equally between devising corporate strategies and implementing social welfare initiatives.
A Cornell University graduate, he has been deeply inspired by the resilience and endurance of people in rural India, especially women. “Be it the little girl who quit school to make way for her brother or the woman who toils all day in the fields, women have an amazing capacity for work and to endure hardships, with an unwavering determination,” says Samir. “However, it’s important to acknowledge that though a positive change in their condition is necessary, it cannot be thrust in one quick sweep. We need to introduce it in measured increments.”
To encourage girl child education, the Somaiya Vidyavihar team conducts regular counselling sessions with conservative parents. He has also set up top-class sports infrastructure in these schools, and in recent years, he has invited top-league sport experts from urban centres and teachers from Cornell University to host lectures in these villages. “The students are insulated from the wider world around them; osmosis is imperative to change this,” says Samir. And as if rising up to the occasion, many of the girl students have shown great results, at district-level matches. The Somaiya Trust runs two Marathi-medium schools in Kopergaon in Maharashtra and two Kannada medium schools in Bagalkot in Karnataka, besides an English-medium school each in both these villages, though Samir agrees to have witnessed a resistance to the idea of the villagers sending their daughters to English medium schools.
In addition to making a grass-roots level change, by working on providing infrastructure to help young girls, the soft-spoken tycoon focuses on economic empowerment of women. His company runs 15 Somaiya Grameen Vikas Kendra tailoring centres for rural unemployed women in a dozen villages all over Karnataka. There is also a concerted attempt to create an inclusive environment where the marginalised feel needed—and worthy. As many as 16 devadasis who suffered years of sexual abuse have been rehabilitated through rigorous counselling. To create alternative job streams for them, Samir has even launched training programmes in tailoring, vermicomposting, farm work and cattle rearing. He has also set up a village improvement programme (VIP), through which women are offered seeds and saplings for cultivation of jasmine, marigold and mango. “This shift in their employment source also brings about a change in the lives of their children. Fewer women migrate to the cities then, where they are often vulnerable to all kinds of abuse. A small change in a woman’s life can bring an equal or greater impact in her family environment.”
PAYING IT FORWARD
DR SANJAY GUPTE, 66, PUNE
He could have simply continued his 35-year-long successful practice as a gynaecologist. But Pune-based surgeon Dr Sanjay Gupte knew deep down that he could certainly do a lot more with his time and resources. Thanks to his work profile, Dr Gupte was particularly sensitive to the many anxieties that women faced daily, in terms of personal safety, abuse, economic independence and sexual assault. Though a super-hectic schedule left him with little time to reach out and make a significant impact, he was not ready to give up without trying. “I decided that I could probably put a network together with my patients who came from different streams of expertise,” says Dr Gupte.
In October 2015, Dr Gupte launched Asmita Foundation, a community-generated, voluntary resource pool, through which young girls could benefit from the knowledge and experience of experts from various fields of health care, poverty, population control, unemployment, self-defence and human rights. “My patients’ daughters were the first to participate in the workshops. The motive is to train them, so that they, in turn, can train others, thus initiating a ripple effect,” says Dr Gupte. Member mentors of the foundation include defence personnel, doctors, law enforcement officials, teachers, bankers, IT professionals and sportsmen. Asmita Foundation has a multi-pronged approach and tackles contemporary lifestyle hazards young women face. Since its launch six months ago, volunteers have already conducted several workshops in schools and neighbourhoods on cybercrime, menstruation, sex selective terminationof pregnancy, the social, developmental and health consequences of HIV/AIDS, measures to prevent and fight sexual harassment at work, and nutrition and weight management. The NGO also sponsors scholarships for young girls who want to pursue higher studies, and has adopted four urban slum settlements in Pune, where it has conducted workshops for girls on personality development, mobile repair, nurse aide course, mehendi classes and tailoring courses.
EMPOWERING A FIGHT
SACHIN ADHIKARI, 56, MUMBAI
It is very critical that women in rural and semi-urban areas feel empowered as a driving force so that they engage in economic initiatives that contribute to the country’s output, in a way that their efforts can be quantified,” says Sachin Adhikari, founder and director of Global Foundation. The foundation has successfully implemented many micro-enterprise programmes for women in rural and semi-urban areas of north India. The programmes cover a wide spectrum of agriculture and allied-agricultural activities like cultivation of organic vegetables, growing seasonal fruits and mushrooms, bee-keeping, pickle manufacture, dehydration of fruits and vegetables, chutney and jam manufacture, livestock management and organic fuel production. As women in patriarchal set-ups may hesitate to take large strides in personal achievement, Sachin has also linked many of these entrepreneurial efforts to their home and hearth through household-based operations that involve skills such as knitting, stitching, weaving, embroidery, bakery and flour milling. “The more women notice an impact on their confidence and business acumen the more they gain respect and authority in their communities. This has further encouraged more families to enrol their daughters, wives and mothers in training programmes, thus uplifting entire communities,” explains Sachin. Sachin’s initiative of fostering micro entrepreneurship has led to tie-ups with the Maharashtra Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture (MACCIA) as well as the Centre for Entrepreneurship and Development (CED), Government of Gujarat. Winner of the Udyog Ratna Award and Award of Excellence from the Institute of Economic Studies (IES), Sachin believes that every woman has the potential to add great value to the society, once she is provided the right kind of environment to flourish and grow.