A proposed policy may make Italy the first western country to grant women who experience painful periods paid ‘menstrual leave’. Companies would be required to offer female employees three paid days off each month upon the presentation of a doctor’s diagnosis of dysmenorrhea. Dysmenorrhea refers to pain during menstruation, often around the time that bleeding begins. Symptoms commonly include cramps in the pelvis or lower abdomen and backache, but for some women it can cause vomiting and headaches. Whilst women can take sick leave when experiencing painful menstruation, many choose not to as they do not class themselves as ‘unwell’. The pervasive taboo surrounding periods contributes to this choice as many women feel embarrassed to admit when they are on their period, with time off perceived as a ‘sign of weakness’.
Menstrual leave was first passed in Japan in 1947, subsequently adopted in varying forms by a string of Asian countries including South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia. In 2015, Zambia passed a law entitling women to take a 'Mother's Day' off once a month with no notice due to menstrual pain. Menstrual leave has also been enshrined in Nike’s code of conduct, the only multi-national corporation to do so, and in the UK by Bristol-based company ‘Coexist’ in 2016. Coexist aim to tap into female staff’s ‘natural rhythms’ in a bid to create a happier and more productive work environment, arguing that women are three times as productive as usual in the time immediately following a period, the ‘spring’ section of the menstrual cycle. Here at Women's Environmental Network, employees have been offered one day of paid menstrual leave a month (or pro rata equivalent) since at least 2005.
Italy’s policy has attracted much debate as some argue that it may feed into negative stereotypes that women are more emotional during their period. Is asking for menstrual leave a retrograde request, undermining women's long-fought battle to discourage the notion that our biology makes us weaker or less able? If male and female rights are not balanced, can we ever hope for true equality in the workplace? In Japan, it was found that many women don’t take their menstrual leave due to such social stigma and a fear that sharing when you have your period with male colleagues could lead to sexual harassment. It has also been suggested that it may dis-incentivise certain firms from hiring more women which could be especially problematic in Italy with Italian women already having the lowest workforce participation rate among high-income economies. This has led many to argue for expanded sick leave for everyone so that commitment to work doesn’t appear different according to gender, in the same vein in which parental leave has been promoted for both parents, not just the mother.
Such a solution, however, does nothing to tackle the stigma surrounding periods. By stimulating conversation around menstruation and raising awareness of the very common problems associated with period pain which can severely affect a woman’s ability to work at all, let alone productively, women can be empowered to make positive decisions about their own health. Period pain should not be trivialised or subject to stigmatisation –as pointed out by the director of Coexist, if it were men who had periods then this policy would have been brought in much sooner. Periods must be normalised and this can only be done if we speak up about our experiences. Whilst it may not be perfect, Italy’s proposed policy is one such opportunity to bring menstruation into the spotlight which we must grab. So go forth and start a discussion with your friends – the more people understand about the realities of women’s health, the easier it will be to fight for positive change.