Meet Maria Carmen: an expert with a mission. Although she’s only 23 years old, this lady already has tons of experience within the menstrual health space, the professional world of menstruation. Maria Carmen currently works as a program coordinator and menstrual health and hygiene expert at PSI Europe, a non-profit health organization, and as a researcher at the Rotterdam School of Management. For her research, she looks into the role of social enterprises, such as Yoni, in challenging the taboo around menstruation. Bloody awesome, right?
Maria Carmen always dreamed of doing something with gender inequality. But it wasn’t until she read an article about how young girls in Nepal can’t sleep in their home or cook food during their menstruation, that she found her calling. For her, this eye-opening article shed a new light on menstruation, namely as an angle from which to approach gender inequality. But menstruation wasn’t just her «way in», it was much more.
«Everyone has a story,» Maria Carmen tells me. And this is what we notice too. Girls and guys, young and old, Dutch and Korean: everyone has something to say and something to share about menstruation. Ever since working in the field, Maria Carmen started noticing how menstruation really forms a connection between people.
People are not afraid to talk about menstruation, if you are not afraid.
On a personal level, she experiences that her title – unofficially being «the period girl» – makes people, strangers and friends alike, open up to her. Whenever she tells someone about her work, they start talking or asking for advice. What does this mean? That people are not afraid to talk about menstruation, if you are not afraid. Quite the contrary even: people want to talk about it. All it takes for them to open up, is someone showing them they’re up for the talk.
From her field experience too, she notices the connective power of periods. Regardless of whether she talks to Dutch, Nepalese or Ethiopian women, each and every conversation contains a personal story about a universal phenomenon. Despite obvious cultural differences, menstruation is a shared experience at its core. And this is perhaps most fascinating. If it’s an experience shared world-wide, why do we not share the discourse around it?
Good question. Having joined projects all over the world, Maria Carmen has experienced that not just menstruation itself, but the taboo around it is universal. Of course, there are different degrees of stigmatization. The old superstition that Italian women will spoil the tomato sauce if they make it while on their periods is not really comparable to the detrimental restrictions that many Nepalese girls face. Likewise, the belief that women in France shouldn’t make mayonnaise during their menstruation is not the same as the belief in some religions that menstruating women are contaminative. But all of these rituals and rules following beliefs and perceptions show that the taboo around menstruation is everywhere, at least to some extent.
Regardless of how poor they are, women do have preferences.
For her work with PSI, Maria Carmen has experienced how menstruation is dealt with in countries where menstruation is a huge problem and the taboo around it is even bigger. In countries like Nepal, India and Ethiopia, fem care products are largely unavailable for the majority of women, and the help that is being offered by western organizations is often not tailored to their needs. There is a lack of understanding of these women and girls, with many organizations wrongly assuming that they’ll appreciate any type of product that is given to them. The contrary is true, however, and these women – regardless of how poor they are – do have preferences when it comes to menstrual products. Just like us, they want high quality products and they value brands with attractive marketing. Just like us, they have opinions about liking pads better than tampons, or the other way around.
This is where social enterprises like Yoni come in. Brands like ours, with products like our own, are changing the way people see menstruation. Social enterprises introduce new, innovative products from which women can choose. Offering women – here in Amsterdam, or there in Nepal – options, will give them the power to express themselves. By offering a product that has a certain value to the women using it, social enterprises are «turning taboo into opportunity», Maria Carmen explains. She compares it to buying a lipstick. «You know that feeling you get when you buy a really nice lipstick, and it makes you feel beautiful, strong and empowered?» she asks, «Well, that’s what I believe social enterprises in the fem care industry are doing with their products too.»
What the future of the menstrual health space should look like? A community that brings together all stakeholders, ranging from NGOs to governments to other businesses, to address menstruation in a holistic way, so that women – and why not, men! – feel curious and empowered instead of ignorant and ashamed. An ambitious vision, that’s for sure. But nothing that the passionate Maria Carmen won’t personally help make happen. And for our part: we’ll continue challenging the taboo – and the industry – one organic tampon at a time.
Maria Carmen and Yoni-founder Mariah