Sanitary pads, employment and nationalism

Sanitary pads, employment and nationalism
Cinema still: Menstrual Man featuring engineer Arunachalam Muruganantham, who travels around India selling sanitary-pad-making machines to women’s groups, giving rural women a source of income.

You men out there, if you have ambitions to be on Time magazine's list of 100 most influential people in the world, would you be willing to wear a sanitary towel that had goat's blood pumped through an artificial "uterus" to mimic a woman's menstrual flow?

Well, this is precisely what Arunachalam Muruganantham, a school dropout from a poor family in Southern India, did.

It was, however, not out of any desire to be on a list featuring the likes of Barack Obama, Pope Francis, Jeff Bezos, Malala Yousafzai, Shinzo Abe, Beyonce and many others, but out of love and empathy for his wife.

In 1998, newly married Muruganantham noticed that his wife, Santhi, used dirty rags he "wouldn't even clean [his] scooter with" - for her periods. Santhi knew about sanitary towels, but said she could not afford them.

Shocked at the extremely "unsanitary pads" his wife and, as it turned out, 88 per cent of Indian women used at the time, he embarked on a years-long quest to make affordable sanitary pads.

To make a five-and-a-half year story short, risking wife, life and reputation, he ended up creating the world's first low-cost sanitary towel-producing machine.

You probably wouldn't normally associate sanitary pads with dignity, but that's what they gave to Indian women, not to mention help prevent urinary tract infections and other diseases, as well as reducing maternal mortality rates.

The user-friendly technology he used also made it possible for rural women to operate, therefore, creating jobs for them.

When out of 943 entries, Muruganantham won first prize in a competition for a national innovation award and was given the award by the president of India, he was in the limelight.

For Muruganantham it could have easily provided him with a (dirty) rags-to-riches opportunity. But no, instead of selling his idea to the highest bidder, he supplied his low-cost machines to the poorest rural communities, providing millions of women with employment and even the opportunity to own their own pad-manufacturing businesses.

May 20th is Indonesia's 107th National Awakening Day (Hari Kebangkitan Nasional) in remembrance of the 1908 formation of the first nationalist group, Budi Utomo.

All well and good, but what does "national pride" or "nationalism" mean in today's Indonesia? Large numbers of Indonesians struggle to find something that makes them genuinely proud of their nation.

Instead they are bombarded with daily stories of rampant corruption and governing dysfunction.

Most versions of Indonesian nationalism are what Jonathan Pincus, president of Rajawali Foundation (rajawalifoundation.org) calls "nationalism of resentment" rather than a nationalism of pride or achievement.

Indonesia has a huge chip on its shoulder for being pushed around globally and historically so it's understandable that being colonised for centuries is bound to foster feelings of resentment.

But does that mean we have to kill off drug-traffickers to prove our pride and dignity? And how dare Malaysia say they originated batik and wayang (shadow puppetry) and claim the Tortor dance as being part of its national heritage!

When are the country's leaders going to focus on giving Indonesia's younger generation national achievements they can be really proud of? Turbo-charging the country's economy would be a good place to start.

How about doing something instead like what Muruganantham did as a concrete form of economic nationalism?

He started on a small, cottage-industry scale, but now his sanitary pad machine has been installed in 26 states in India and exported to several other countries.

There are a lot of cottage industries in Indonesia as well. But unlike Indonesia, India has large-scale, globally competitive manufacturing.

Indonesia is not a leading producer of any manufactured goods, so how about getting some inspiration from India?

Recently, a blueprint was offered by Gus Papanek, one of the most sophisticated observers of Indonesia's economy for over half a century in a book entitled "The Economic Choices Facing the Next President", published by the think tank Transformasi.

Co-authored with Raden Pardede and Suahasil Nazara, it's about creating desperately needed quality jobs in labour-intensive manufacturing that could result in double-digit growth.

It's a once-in-a-century opportunity because as Papanek points out, China, the world largest exporter of labour-intensive manufactured goods, is less competitive than it used to be.

"Wages are rising and the renminbi, China's national currency, is beginning to appreciate against the dollar, euro and yen"

Naturally, other countries, mainly in Asia, will take the share of China's export market for labour-intensive manufactured goods.

Besides having a large and rapidly growing labour force, Indonesia also has millions of workers employed in low productivity jobs in agriculture or the informal sector.

The authors estimate that Indonesia can increase manufactured exports by US$110 billion (S$147 b) over the next five years.

"These additional manufactured goods, combined with the multiplier effect from higher domestic demand as workers spend their additional income, would create 21 million good, productive jobs by 2019."

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