Would you take period leave from your job?
+ New data about who has abortions
Only have a minute to read this newsletter? Here it is in brief:
🩸 Why is menstrual leave so controversial?
❓ Think you know who is most likely to have an abortion? You might be surprised…
🗞️ We’ll be talking all things gender and journalism at a festival in Italy next month.
Parlez-vous français ? Impact is also available in French:
The great menstrual leave debate
Spain has made history by becoming the first country in Europe to provide menstrual leave. Under the new law, employees are entitled to paid time off “in case of incapacitating menstruation” if they provide a doctor’s note.
Menstrual leave may be new to Europe but it’s already available in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia. Zambia introduced the policy in 2015 under the euphemistic title of “Mother’s Day”. But it’s far from a popular policy among feminists and non-feminists alike.
Let us quickly dispense with the non-feminists who harbour the suspicion that the policies will be abused, and women will take time off even when their periods don’t hurt. Among feminists, some embrace the policy as a workers’ rights issue as a way to tackle taboos about periods and make workplaces more gender-sensitive. After all, why should we have to be ashamed of menstruating? And why should we have to suffer in silence if we’re in pain instead of having an adult conversation about what’s wrong?
But there are also those who worry that by giving workers time off for their periods, we are entrenching gender stereotypes about what people can and can’t do while menstruating. Periods have long been used to discredit women’s abilities, and many of us had to grow up with men and boys sneering about whether it was our “time of the month” whenever we got angry or struggled with a particular task. Others point out that the vast majority of periods should not be painful, and that severe pain is a sign that something is wrong — menstrual leave, they argue, normalises the idea that women and gender-diverse people should suffer when they menstruate, and could hide more serious issues.
Why such controversy over this policy? Part of the problem, says Sydney Colussi who studies menstrual leave policies at the The Body@Work Project at the University of Sydney, is that we don’t know whether they are effective. Menstrual leave policies are “growing in popularity, but we have very little empirical evidence,” she told the Impact newsletter via email. “These policies could have a positive impact, for example by addressing stigma related to menstruation and providing extra support to those who need it, but it is too early to say.”
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This empirical void leads us to project our own feelings about our bodies and our workplaces onto the idea of menstrual leave, and what it might mean to ask an employer for time off for a painful period. Experiences of menstruation differ greatly — I mostly deal with my period by skipping it, and it’s light and painless when I do schedule it. This experience is vastly different to someone who has endometriosis or polycystic ovary syndrome or to someone who lives in a country where menstrual taboos can be deadly.
Yet there is some insight to be gained from the fact that take-up of menstrual leave, while under-researched, appears to be low in the countries where it is available. This is why some have suggested that any menstrual leave needs to be accompanied by other “period-friendly policies” including flexible working and access to period products to encourage take-up. In one study of Japanese companies, just 0.9 percent of eligible workers had taken menstrual leave. We don’t know how many of those workers needed it and were too afraid to ask, and how many would never have wanted or needed to take it.
It’s also a sad truth that the state of the backlash against the rights of women and gender-diverse people is such that data about our menstrual cycles has the potential to be used against us by governments and, yes, employers. In countries where abortion is criminalised, I would certainly think twice about sharing any information about my period with my boss, or anyone.
There is anecdotal evidence of privacy violations due to existing policies. “In Indonesia, there have been alarming reports out of the garment sector that women have been required to provide proof of menstruation in order to take menstrual leave, which obviously raises serious privacy and human rights concerns,” Colussi said.
In a perfect world (or even a slightly better one) no one would have to work while they were in any kind of pain, nor would they need to get a doctor’s certificate for short, health-related absences from their jobs. Never mind the kind of utopia that would have to exist in order for the pain experienced by women and gender-diverse people to be taken seriously, in which we would have the interventions required to make “incapacitating” periods a thing of the past.
In the very imperfect world in which we live, perhaps menstrual leave will allow some people who live in countries with decent reproductive rights and who have employers they can trust to get some respite from painful periods. Unfortunately, that’s still very few people.
I’d love to hear from you about this issue: What do you think about menstrual leave? Does your employer offer it? Do you/would you take it? Hit reply to this email to share your view.
Who has abortions?
A new study has analysed the main factors associated with abortions in low and middle-income countries — that is, the vast majority of the planet – for the first time.
The authors found that the most common profile of a woman seeking an abortion is being married. Abortion was also more likely in people over 30. Those most likely to have an abortion had more than four children already, and household wealth had no bearing on the likelihood of having an abortion.
In short, erase from your mind the cliché of a young, poor, single mothers-to-be when you think about abortion. Forget the idea that access to abortion might stop people having children. Most women who have abortions have lived exactly the life that conservative anti-abortion activists would want them to: they are married with children. But they still need abortions, as do the rest of us. It’s the law that dictates whether those abortions will be safe — 45% of abortions are not, and 97% of those unsafe abortions take place in the Majority World.
Unfortunately, this very useful study begins with the phrase: “Terminating a pregnancy is never an easy decision”. But it’s rarely a good idea to use the words “always” and “never” about people’s experiences of abortion (looking at you, President “abortion is always a tragedy” Macron). There are as many abortion stories as there are abortions, and what may be difficult for some will be easy for others, what is a tragedy for someone will be a relief for someone else, with infinite shades of emotion in between. We don’t know how someone feels about terminating a pregnancy unless we listen to them.
Come see us in Perugia!
I will be moderating a panel on the state of gender journalism at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia on April 21st. The panel also features Impact contributor Agustina Ordoqui, who writes our monthly news wrap. Our panel is part of a series of discussions of diversity, equity and inclusion taking place at the festival. Come and say hi if you are there!