And the impact of her research can literally be seen on campus: together with the University Council and Erasmus Verbindt, she maintains four lockers on campus where everyone can get free menstrual products. “My passion often goes far beyond work.”

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Where does that passion come from?

“I have been interested in women’s rights all my life. When I was 20, I read a piece about menstruation in western Nepal in Internazionale, an Italian magazine. In some villages, women had to sleep in cow sheds during menstruation because they were considered impure. Although the practice has now been banned, it still happens. This sparked my interest. I had never thought about the role that menstruation plays in the equity of women. That was the beginning of a long love story between me and menstrual health. I wrote my master’s thesis (for the master Global Business & Sustainability, ed.) on women entrepreneurs trying to improve women’s health. It never stopped after that. I got in touch with activists, started an Instagram profile about menstruation and visited many events.”

After your master’s, you ended up working for the NGO Population Services International (PSI), for which you worked in Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Nepal, among other places. It’s pretty amazing that after your thesis you found a job on the same subject, and then a PhD as well. How did you manage that?

“I think it was a mix of luck, hard work and timing. Five years ago, you never heard about the topic; now there have been four articles at NOS.nl this year alone about menstrual poverty. I started writing about it online early on, which was one of my best decisions ever. As a result, I was invited to all sorts of places in Europe to join in the discussion. And then the job at PSI came along. They saw something in the research and in me, while I was still very young and inexperienced. Kudos to them.”

‘In some villages, women had to sleep in cow sheds during menstruation because they were considered impure’

Punzi about western Nepal

What did you do in those countries?

“I gave training at local offices there and integrated menstrual health into their sex education and reproductive health programmes. I had surveyed all the local NGO offices, for example about what girls and women needed and what the best practices were. I gave workshops about that. At the same time, I learned a lot from the experienced staff there, about how they worked with the local hospitals and women. It was a very special experience, which made me certain that I wanted to get involved in this subject for a long time.”

What does menstrual poverty look like in Ethiopia, for example?

“Women and girls do not have the means to deal with their menstruation properly. The problem is not just money, but infrastructure: there is no working toilet, there are no bins to dispose of menstrual products. The women often use reusable rags, but often they cannot clean them properly. There is also a lot of shame and misinformation. Talking about this subject is already very taboo. The infrastructure can be repaired, but the belief that you are cursed if someone sees you bleed, the connotation with witchcraft, that is more difficult to solve. Frankly, this problem applies to large parts of the world. The shame and silence make it worse.”

Is there anything you can do about this as an NGO?

“No organisation can do that on its own. It is a collaboration between many different parties and stakeholders. That observation was one of the main reasons I went for a PhD. We need people who think about how all these parties can work together. Because one NGO cannot simultaneously advocate for policy, bring the products, provide the funds, and fight prejudice.”

The lockers with free pads and tampons on campus are also a way of breaking the taboo. They have been there for a little over a month now. How does that work?

“The lockers in the Food Plaza and the University Library are the most popular. Ana Uribe Sandoval (University Council member, ed.) and I filled them for the first time last month. I keep the stock up during the summer. To be honest, we did not expect it would be such a hassle. Many people we talked to said: I’m not responsible for this, ask someone else. That happens with these new things. Some said: people will take everything from the locker. But the lockers haven’t been looted so far. The other day I even saw someone putting a product in them. Such a cool idea!

“We now have the lockers in four locations. Ideally, the products would be available everywhere. But that would require structural funding. I think it’s a good thing if this were to be done: it says something about an institution. There is a coffeehouse in Rotterdam that has been offering free menstrual products for some time now. That tells me something about their business. It is not just about offering the product. It’s also about what message you want to send out to people who come to the campus.”

How is it that the availability of these products on campus is only now becoming an issue, when these products have been needed for ages?

“When women have their period unexpectedly, the unspoken rule is to ask each other for help. Or you use toilet paper. Which, by the way, is very uncomfortable. I would not recommend that to anyone. The strange thing is, even most women did not think about this. That shows that we are not used to talking about it.”

Is that because it is a taboo subject or because it wasn’t such a big issue here?

“Well, one in ten women suffers from endometriosis, a severe menstrual disorder that can negatively affect their quality of life, their work and even their fertility. Seven in ten have regular complaints and mood swings that affect their work and general well-being. This is a taboo subject, and we have little information about it. I know several women who have so much pain that they have had to skip work or school: you can hardly say that it is not a big problem. There are already so many barriers on the road to equality; menstruation should not be one of them. For me, that’s the most important point. It has always been trivialised: ‘it’s not a problem; it’s just part of being a woman’.”

A survey by Erasmus Verbindt showed that half of the respondents called menstrual products in the Netherlands ‘unaffordable’. One in six knows someone who cannot afford the products. To be honest, I thought it hard to imagine that students and staff really can’t afford that. How do you interpret this outcome?

“We often assume that menstrual products are cheap. But the truth is that the cheapest products are of the lowest quality; they may have been checked to be safe, but their ingredients may be irritating, and using them isn’t always pleasant. The expensive versions are much nicer, made from organic cotton, or they are reusable. For families that are really struggling financially, menstrual products are often not a priority. And then you also have to look at who is responsible for the money within such a family. If you wonder why students here say they cannot afford the products, you also have to remember that life in the Netherlands is very expensive for people that come from abroad. And the question is also which products you are talking about. Because you can say: you can go to Kruidvat and buy a packet of one euro. But what is that worth? I believe most students can afford it, but if you’ve just arrived on campus for an exam and you suddenly need a pad, you have to go to the supermarket here and then it suddenly costs four euros.

In an interview for RSM, you said you were against menstrual leave. Why is that?

“It is nuanced. Should you see menstrual leave as something separate from sick leave? There are countries where they have had it for years, but there are women who are afraid to take it, because it might damage their career. I think we should avoid seeing menstruation as a problem. For me, it doesn’t have to be different from sick leave, because if you feel sick, you should be able to call in sick. And the pandemic has also shown that flexible working can be a solution. If it is helpful to work from home for a while, or a bit less one day and then a bit more the next, then that should be possible too.”

periodswithcarmen meme maria carmen punzi
Punzi also makes her own memes on her Instagram account.

But if you regularly call in sick because of menstruation it can also be detrimental to your career, I’m afraid.

“Yes, but that is why we have to have the conversation, also with managers. There are women who have lost their jobs because they could not function properly due to a menstrual disorder. But if managers are trained and understand better that this can happen, they can find solutions together. If women are not supported and keep their condition a secret, it can end up damaging their job and health.”

What should an organisation like EUR do?

“I have the feeling that here at the university, we are lagging behind. With the Rotterdam Pass, teenagers can get menstrual products reimbursed. Scotland gave free products to everyone at university. But here, nobody was talking about it yet. First of all, we should think about all the things that make menstruation a barrier for students or staff. Are there products available? Can you get a painkiller? And there should be a doctor available. If I lived here on campus, I wouldn’t have known where to go. Spar does sell menstrual products and painkillers, but they are expensive.”

The Diversity & Inclusion office could play a role in educating managers; have you been in contact with them?

“No, not yet, but I think it is a very good idea to do that. I don’t blame them at all that this subject was not on the agenda yet, as there are so many important subjects they have been working on in the past years. But that is exactly why I want to talk to them. As a researcher, you can play an important role.”

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