Spain have implemented paid menstrual leave since February this year, with every woman being able to take 3-5 days off work per month if they are impacted by menstruation. They are the first nation in Europe to do this, with the leave provision being funded by the Government.
Irene Montero, the equality minister of Spain, said that without these rights women are not full citizens in her opinion, and that paid menstrual leave could be a step forward for the equality between men and women.
Is there a need for paid menstrual leave?
It is clear that women can experience pain from menstruation, but is menstrual leave really necessary? Let’s look at some stats:
A study found that one in three women experience such intense pain during menstruation that they cannot carry out daily tasks. It looked at 42,000 women and was carried out by the Radbound University Medical Centre, Netherlands in 2021.
Despite the amount that suffer, period pain is still not acknowledged as a legitimate reason for taking sick leave in the UK.
Another survey by the Spanish Association of Obstetrics and Gynaecology discovered that roughly a third of women endure extremely painful periods. A YouGov poll from 2022 found that just one in six women have never experienced period pains that are bad enough to affect their ability to work. The poll also discovered that just 4% of women who menstruate say they take time off work for period pains and 40% of women whose periods regularly affect work say they have never taken time off for them. Another problem which was discovered is that those who do take time off for painful periods, pretend they are doing so for a different reason. The majority of women who call in sick due to menstruation (58%) say they are not being truthful about the reason for taking a day off, suggesting they are embarrassed or ashamed amongst colleagues.
This research shows how many women suffer in silence and reflects how many women are affected by painful menstruation. It is clear that these women are being affected by pain and that something needs to be done to reduce the stigma around taking leave due to it – especially in the UK.
UK charities such as Bloody Good Period and Endometrioisis UK are now asking the Government to bring in menstrual leave for women who suffer. The UK includes period pain under sick leave, however based on the YouGov poll, the majority of women are untruthful due to the taboo around menstruation. Additionally, this is not the only problem as sick leave is not payable for the first three days of absence (unless included in a contract), and women taking leave due to painful periods would not normally be off longer than this. So, these charities in the UK are calling for a change in legislation, in order to support women more.
Other countries which have implemented it
Spain is not the only country to introduce paid menstrual leave, some countries such as Japan, Indonesia and Zambia enforced it many years ago. Even though one of the reasons that Spain has implemented menstrual leave is to reduce stigma, it seems that in countries which have already implemented it, stigma is rife.
The Soviet Union actually became the first to introduce paid menstrual leave in 1922 for women with factory jobs, however it is unclear how it was received.
Both Indonesia and Japan implemented it between 1947-1948 due to inadequate bathrooms and sanitation for women in the workplace, rather than because of how many women suffered. In Japan, no medical documentation is needed to take the leave, but less than 10% of women do due to embarrassment, especially amongst male colleagues.
A handful of male colleagues in South Korea, a country who has also implemented this, have argued that menstrual leave is a form of ‘reverse sexism’. The head of the South Korean men’s rights group said on Twitter: “You should be ashamed of yourselves. Why are you making such a fuss about menstruating when the nation’s birthrate is the lowest in the world?” This makes women feel under pressure to not use these days off, especially in male-dominated workplaces.
Zambia’s rules surrounding the leave are similar as women do not need any medical documentation or need to give a reason for taking it, which may encourage more women to take it as they could feel less embarrassment. They introduced it in 2017, calling it ‘Mother’s Day’, with only one day of leave available each month. Mother’s day applies to all women, even if they do not have any children, sparking debate around the real meaning of the name.
“The reason why mother’s day is important within the Zambian context is that it recognises that women are the primary care-givers in our society — regardless of whether they are married or not.” Linda Kasonde (senior lawyer).
Issues of paid menstrual leave
The biggest issue with paid menstrual leave is that some women do not take it due to embarrassment. Menstruation is still viewed as a huge taboo in most cultures, with workspaces lacking safe spaces and a supportive culture to discuss it with colleagues, especially with male colleagues. Research from Plan International found that more than one in three boys think periods should be kept secret, making people question whether this is also the case in the workplace.
Another issue faced is the fear that introducing the paid menstrual leave could make the gender pay gap and equalities for women worse – creating more barriers to hiring women. Nowadays, women are still overlooked for promotions due to being off work more than males as a result of maternity leave, adding menstrual leave to the list could create another reason.
Some people took to LinkedIn to share their views on the idea:
“This is just getting absurd and is going to put a damper on the equal pay, and equal benefits movements. It is also going to make companies more reluctant to hire women if they lose 60 additional days a year, along with 28 days annual leave, 14 days average sick leave, 7 days special, 9 month every three years average.” (Phil Surooj commented).
Moreover, introducing paid menstrual leave may lead to the normalisation of extreme period paid. Women may view it as natural to suffer with intense periods, causing them to be unable to go to work, when in reality this should not be the case. Although so many women suffer with it, it is unnatural for the pain to be so bad that it affects daily life. Cases like this should be investigated for underlying conditions and introducing the leave may stop women from seeking help.
Benefits from implementing menstrual leave
On the other hand, there would be many positives for introducing paid menstrual leave in the UK.
Firstly, menstrual symptoms are linked to nine days of lost productivity every year, a Dutch survey found. The survey also revealed how the real impact on women and society is underestimated.
Introducing paid menstrual leave could give women a chance to recuperate and recover, rather than to suffer in the workplace resulting in low productivity and tasks not being completed to the best of their ability. Instead, women could take one day off to recover then get back into work the next day. Another idea is that women suffering may be able to work from home instead of in the office. We have seen it during Covid-19, there is the ability for workplaces to enforce this, making women feel better and again, giving them time to recover.
“Women have been socialised to manage it privately, sometimes drugging themselves up with painkillers and other medications just to be able to function at work.” Candace Nkoth Bisseck (Linkedin)
It is often overlooked that one in ten women in the UK, and 10% of women worldwide suffer from endometriosis, a condition causing severe pain as tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows outside the womb. This disease causes extremely painful periods. Introducing menstrual leave in the UK would also help women who suffer with conditions relating to menstruation such as this.
Opening up conversations and breaking down barriers can be a key way to support women during tough periods and paid menstrual leave is one step closer to doing this.
Editor’s note: If your period is causing pain that affects daily life, please speak to a GP.