Menstrual health must be in government and employer policies

It’s a world’s first: Scotland has greenlighted free tampons and sanitary pads for all women, paid for by the Scottish government. The Dutch government – and Dutch schools and employers – should follow suit, says Maria Carmen Punzi PhD candidate of the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity Initiative and the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). “It’s only fair that we should take into account different bodily needs.”

Scotland is the first country in the world where women can pick up tampons and pads free of charge in public places such as community centres and chemists. On 24 November 2020, the Scottish government voted unanimously in favour of a bill put forward because ‘no one should have to worry about where their next tampon, pad or reusable is coming from,’ in the words of Monica Lennon, the member of the Scottish parliament who introduced the bill.

Major breakthrough
Studies had shown that (young) Scottish women were unable to buy sanitary pads because they were short on money, in some cases leading to school or work absenteeism.

RSM’s Maria Carmen Punzi calls the new Scottish act ‘a major breakthrough’. The Italian-born researcher is an expert in the field of menstrual health.

“Purchasing basic hygiene products should not be a burden on anyone. On top of that, this act is very important in that it will raise awareness. Dutch policymakers, too, will experience increased pressure to look into this matter,” she says.

But Punzi thinks that there is one aspect of the Scottish bill that leaves some room for improvement. “From what I’ve read, Scotland is making tampons and single-use pads available. We must however take into consideration that the right product is different for each woman. It’s important that governments offer a variety of options, including organic cotton disposables and reusable products which have the additional benefit of a reduced impact on the environment. Most of all, I believe education is key for women to make truly free, informed choices when it comes to their menstrual products.”

Schools and employers already offer free toilet paper for all their employees. Only few organisations provide pads and tampons, the others ignoring the fact that women are often surprised by their period at work.

“There is a difference between equality and equity (fairness),” says Punzi. “Employers treat their employees equitably precisely when they take into account their different needs.”

Another thing that plays a part in this discussion is the fact that periods can have a significant impact on women’s well-being at work. One in three women experience such intense pain while on their period that they are unable to function normally in daily life, according to a study of 42,000 women published last year by Radboudumc hospital in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. And 85 per cent of women experience some degree of pain.

“An equitable period policy doesn’t stop at free products,” says Punzi. “We need policies that consider that women have to deal with their menstrual cycle for a large part of their working lives. The Nijmegen study showed that many women have difficulty focusing while on their period, due to pain and other symptoms, but also that the people around them lack the information and tools to take their concerns seriously. Environments where one can openly discuss menstrual health are rare. As a result, women don’t always feel comfortable enough to advocate for policies that would accommodate their needs.”

Menstrual leave?
A growing number of countries has made paid menstrual leave a legally enshrined right. Punzi is not sure whether this is the right measure. “I don’t know if women will feel free enough, or even want, to stay at home for one day each month. They might fear it will have an impact on their career or portray them as weak. For me, the answer is flexibility. The coronavirus crisis has shown us that working from home can be a solution, albeit not in all professions. If a woman is experiencing discomfort because of her period, she should be able to work from home or spread her working hours across the day.”

It is important to stress it is perfectly possible for someone with a menstrual cycle to stay on top of one month’s work. While women may experience fatigue or pain during menstruation, the following weeks are usually associated with increased energy and productivity, thanks to the rise in estrogen.

That said, Punzi doesn’t reject menstrual leave completely. “About 10 per cent of women suffer from endometriosis, a menstrual disorder associated with debilitating pain and fatigue. Women suffering from this and similar conditions should be able to take leave without any consequences.”

PhD student
More information

This article has been adapted by Rotterdam School of Management from a Dutch article in Nederlands Dagblad, by which Maria Carmen Punzi was recently interviewed. 
Based on the article in Nederlands Dagblad, two members of the parliament asked asked questions to the Dutch minister of medical care.

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In a monthly interview series, the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity Initiative will turn the spotlights on their PhD candidates. This month: Maria Carmen Punzi.

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