– BY RATHI R –
According to Kerala in the 19th Century (1988) written by P. Bhaskaranunni, a government-run girls’ school in the state of Cochin (India) allowed its students to take period leave during annual examinations. According to the author, the headmaster of the school, V. P. Vishwanatha Iyer took up the issue of student absenteeism due to menstruation and menstrual taboos with the school inspector. A decision, relieving students from taking their examination during their menstrual cycles and allowing them to do this on a later occasion, was taken on January 24, 1912. One hundred and eight years later, the discussion on menstrual leave continues.
Paid or unpaid leave if you can’t work on your period
In employment, menstrual leave is a legalised policy that gives working women of reproductive age an option to take leave during their menstrual cycles. Viewed as a gender-specific policy, menstrual leave allows women who are unable to attend work because of menstrual cycle-related symptoms, paid or unpaid leave.
A World Bank study conducted in September 2019 reports that 40% of the world’s labour force constitutes women. Roughly half of this population experience a condition called dysmenorrhoea (painful periods). Apart from that, some also suffer from back pain, diarrhoea, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting when menstruating.
Menstrual leave legislation: from Japan’s seiri kyuka in Japan to Zambia’s Mother’s Day
Legislation promoting menstrual leave is already in place in some countries. The movement began in Japan, when labour unions demanded leave for women – seiri kyuka – in the early 1920s. The Japanese Labour Standards enacted a favourable legislation in 1947. Working women in Zambia can avail menstrual leave, known as Mother’s Day, as mentioned in the country’s labour laws. However, this leave comes with clauses restricting women from ‘misusing’ it.
Some countries in Asia, including Indonesia (two days menstrual leave per month), Philippines, Taiwan (three menstrual leaves a year), South Korea, and some provinces in China, have arrangements as well. Bills for providing paid menstrual leave have been also debated in 2013 in the Russian Duma and Italy in 2017. In 2018, the Menstruation Benefit Bill was tabled in the Indian Parliament. The Indian state of Bihar has already been offering its women workers two ‘Special Casual Leave(s)’ since 1992.
Menstruating? Society considers you ‘less competent’ and ‘weak’
In their paper, “Feminine Protection”: The Effects of Menstruation on Attitudes towards Women, Tomi-Ann Roberts, Jamie L. Goldenberg, Cathleen Power, and Tom Pyszcznski argue that when women’s menstrual status is revealed, they’re likely to ‘be viewed as less competent and also would be liked less and physically avoided.’ Researchers asked female participants to drop a tampon (experimental item) or a hair clip (control item) from their handbag amidst a group. When asked, group members revealed they felt disgusted by the women who dropped the tampon and therefore maintained a physical distance from them. Additionally, they considered these women to be less competent and weak.
The menstrual leave debate
It’s no wonder that social perceptions about women, particularly based on their menstrual status, have led to debates on whether menstrual leave should be made available or not. In a patriarchal culture, the stigma around menstruation often causes menstruation to be viewed as a disease, and women who ask for menstrual leave as weak and a liability. This can lead to women being paid less, hired less frequently by companies, and given positions or profiles of less authority. The term menstrual leave can make people form unfounded assumptions. It isn’t uncommon, for male employees in particular and society in general, to think that women are given preferential treatment or that they don’t need to be part of the workforce.
Such perceptions limit working women from claiming menstrual leave even if it were available. Additionally, companies may not actively encourage their female workers to claim menstrual leave. Women in Indonesia, for instance, can only use their menstrual leave after undergoing a physical examination by company representatives. In South Korea, where women are legally protected to take one day menstrual leave per month, they often feel uncomfortable asking their male bosses. Japanese women refrain from taking menstrual leave believing it will affect their income. And, in Zambia, if menstrual leave is found ‘misused’, that is, if women are found shopping or farming during their leave days, they can be fired. In collectivistic cultures such as Russia, women feel guilty in burdening their co-workers by taking menstrual leave.
It’s a man’s world. But will menstrual leave lead to more gender equality?
Arguments in favour of menstrual leave come from a place of gender equality and the promotion of women’s rights. Women’s workplaces, just like men’s, range from multinational corporations to garment factories. Many of these organisations, especially in developing countries, lack adequate sanitation and clean toilets. In these cases, menstruating women and girls are more likely to take leave or drop out. Provision of decent and safe working conditions has also been related to more women joining the workforce, a trend that will positively contribute to the economy of any country. Additionally, it’s believed that rights-based employment policies will encourage the dilution of existing gender biases and prejudices against women.
We must understand, though, that the employment policies adopted by organisations are a result of the patriarchal system – a system that operates on norms and practices favouring one gender over the other(s). That is, work culture, codes of conduct, what may be seen as productive or as a liability, has been decided by cis men. It’s still a man’s world and it’s therefore no wonder that other groups find it difficult to function and be considered productive in this culture. Legislation supporting interests and requirements of marginalised groups, be it women, trans persons or handicapped persons, is necessary to ensure that the ‘normal’ of society is consistently redefined. In an ideal world, menstrual leave won’t be necessary. Until then though, the experiences of women will require legal support.
About the author
Rathi R is an Indian writer with an interest in feminism and mental health. She has a Master’s Degree in Social Work and a background in academics and the non-profit sector. Her work has been published in The Asian Writer, LitGleam, Feminism in India and Classism Exposed. Rathi also writes at ratzest.wordpress.com.
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