The Chalice Foundation is proud to join in a month-long period pain campaign throughout March 2021 with The Cova Project and our friends at Myna Mahila USA. These two organisations want to continue to open the conversation around period pain, normalise it and provide resources/support to menstruators who experience it.

Part of this involves having healthcare professionals speak to their experience treating menstrual health disorders and their advice for patients. Another important part is looking at actionable policy in the workplace for menstruators who experience debilitating pain on a monthly basis, which is where we come in! This week on The Leak is the first blog on workplace menstrual policies and we’ll have one next week as well. 

Since co-authoring a workplace menstrual policy in 2016, I have been speaking publicly about workplace menstrual policies ever since and while there is definitely some awareness growing around them, many people don’t know that they have actually been around since the 1920s when they were introduced in Russia, followed by Japan in 1947 and Indonesia in 1948.

Before we all start jumping with joy at these super progressive initiatives, context is really important. These early iterations of menstrual policies were designed to ensure that women’s fertility was kept “intact”, reinforced by sexist assumptions about women’s physical capabilities. Soviet Russia’s menstrual policy, aimed at women performing factory work and giving provision of two to three days leave per menstrual cycle, was designed to “protect the health of women workers in order that they should be able to fulfil their reproductive and maternal functions.”[1] This reflected a common belief amongst doctors and scientists the world over that anything too mentally or physically taxing would “divert energy away from a woman’s reproductive system, harming her fertility.” [2]

Japan’s menstrual leave policy, enacted through the Labour Standards Law of 1947, “is used by employers as an argument against providing equal positions for female workers, at the same time that its meager benefits pacify women and keep them from fighting for more substantial benefits like higher wages and better work conditions” reinforcing the idea that women are ill suited to formal work.[3] Take up of the menstrual policy has actually declined from 20 per cent in 1960 to 13 per cent in 1981.[4] A professional women in her 30s commented in 2016, “If you take menstrual leave, you’re basically broadcasting to the entire office which days of the month you have your period…It’s not the sort of thing you want to share with male colleagues, and it could lead to sexual harassment.”[5]

Indonesia introduced menstrual leave in 1948 with the provision of “two days of menstrual leave on the first and second day if they cannot perform their work.”[6] This was changed in 2003 with the law stating that “female workers [labourers] who feel pain during their menstrual period and tell the [employer] about this are not obliged to come to work on the first and second day of menstruation” but these entitlements are subject to each workers contractual entitlements.[7] On International Women’s Day 2015, Indonesian female labourers from 11 federations of union workers demanded an end to the practice of employees having to undergo a physical check before menstrual leave is granted. Indah Saptorini, the project coordinator of the All Global Union movement for women explained that, “labourers feel that taking menstrual leave is difficult because there’s a certain procedure they need to go through, and as a result many opt not to use their right to menstrual leave.”[8] A lack of education and wider cultural change still makes taking menstrual leave fraught for some Indonesian women. 

So physical examinations, opening yourself up for potential sexual harassment and being treated like your biology makes you incompetent isn’t exactly the ideal foundation for menstrual policies. 

Luckily, there is a new tranche of menstrual policies that are actually centering menstruators and enabling them to self care in their workplaces without worrying about their fertility or being reduced to their body parts while also encouraging wider workplace cultural change to eliminate the menstrual taboo. This is what the menstrual and menopause workplace wellbeing policy that I co-wrote at the Victorian Women’s Trust set out to do (more on that next week).

There are other organisations like the Health and Community Services Union (HACSU) who included Reproductive Health and Wellbeing Leave in their 2020 mental health log of claims, “From menstrual pain and discomfort to the need for surgical interventions like vasectomy or hysterectomy to assisted reproduction and gender transitioning therapies, Reproductive Health and Wellbeing Leave takes away the embarrassment for employees and employers making it clear that there is workplace support for the most personal health issues.”[9] 

In August last year, Zomato in India introduced up to 10 days of annual menstrual leave for menstruators at the company with the Chief Executive Goyal Deepinder advocating cultural change saying “a note for men – our female colleagues expressing that they are on their period leave shouldn’t be uncomfortable for us. This is a part of life, and while we don’t fully understand what women go through, we need to trust them when they say they need to rest this out. I know that menstrual cramps are very painful for a lot of women – and we have to support them through it if we want to build a truly collaborative culture at Zomato.” [10] This follows introduction of period leave at companies in India including Wet & Dry Personal Care (2016), Culture Machine (2017), Magzter (2017), Mathrubhumi (2017) and Gozoop (2017). Zomato (2020) and Horse Stable News (2020) both explicitly address menstrual stigma, Saloni Agarwal, Co-Founder of Horses Productions Pvt. Ltd said, “The implementation of menstrual leave policy should not be termed as a gift. Our aim is to provide equal opportunities to the growth of both men and women. We’re not only taking care of the women but our empathy lies towards the married men as well who want to spend time with their wives during this stressful period. We are more than happy to implement this initiative in our company and by doing so, we wish to inspire other organisations to adopt this policy as a step towards gender inclusivity. With this initiative, I hope to break the menstrual taboo.” [11] Tata Steel is the latest Indian company to bring in menstrual leave, alongside a number of other workplace policies stating, “we stand committed to provide equal opportunity to all workgroups including women, Persons with Disabilities and LGBTQ+ employees, while acknowledging and embracing the diverse capabilities each individual brings.” [12]

While we are absolutely not there in terms of eliminating the menstrual taboo, there are plenty of bright sparks and a great wave of momentum towards eliminating menstrual shame in workplaces and ensuring menstruators are empowered to look after themselves while being supported in their experience at work.

Thank you to researchers at the University of Sydney Marian Baird, Elizabeth Hill and Sydney Colussi for their forthcoming research and guidance around this area of labor policy. 

References

[1] Melanie Ilič, Women Workers in the Soviet Interwar Economy: From  ‘Protection’ to ‘Equality’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999) 96 cited in Marian Baird, Elizabeth Hill and Sydney Colussi, ‘Mapping menstrual leave legislation  and policy historically and globally: A labour entitlement to reinforce, remedy or revolutionize  gender equality at work? Comparative Labor Law and Policy Journal, Vol 42.1 (forthcoming), 6.

[2] Angela Saini 2017, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and New Research That’s Rewriting The Story, Great Britain: Harper Collins, 10. 

[3] Alice J Dan cited in J Firger 2014, ‘Should women get paid menstrual leave from work?’, CBS News, 9 December, viewed online 31 May 2016, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/should-women-get-paid-menstrual-leave/

[4] Ibid.

[5] Justin McCurry and Stuart Leavenworth 2016, “Period policy in Asia: time off ‘may be seen as a sign of weakness’”, Guardian, 4 March, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/mar/04/period-policy-asia-menstrual-leave-japan-women-work

[6] 2021 ‘Sick Leave and Annual Leave Entitlements in Indonesia: A Guide for Overseas Employers’, SheildGeo, viewed online 1 February 2021, https://shieldgeo.com/sick-leave-and-annual-leave-entitlements-in-indonesia-a-guide-for-overseas-employers/

[7] Lahiri-Dutt and Robinson (n 5) 115; Kathryn Robinson, ‘What Does a Gender Relations Approach Bring to  Southeast Asian Studies’ in M Huotari et al (eds) Methodology and Research Practice in Southeast Asian Studies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) 118 cited in Marian Baird, Elizabeth Hill and Sydney Colussi, ‘Mapping menstrual leave legislation  and policy historically and globally: A labour entitlement to reinforce, remedy or revolutionize  gender equality at work? Comparative Labor Law and Policy Journal, Vol 42.1(forthcoming), 1.

[8] Pemburuan S 2015, ‘On Women’s Day, Women Demand Longer Maternity Leave’, Jakarta Globe, 8 March, viewed online 20 June 2016, http://jakartaglobe.beritasatu.com/news/womens-day-workers-demand-longer-maternity-leave/.

[9] HACSU 2020, ‘Reproductive Health and Wellbeing Leave’, https://www.reproductivehealthleave.com.au/faq

[10] PR Team 2020, ‘Introducing period leaves for women’, Zomato blog, 8 August, viewed online 1 February 2021, https://www.zomato.com/blog/period-leaves

[11] 2020, ‘Bengaluru-based firm Horses Stable News is giving period leave to all’, The New Indian Express, 17 June, viewed online 1 February 2021, https://www.newindianexpress.com/good-news/2020/jun/17/bengaluru-based-firm-horses-stable-news-is-giving-period-leave-to-all-2157487.html

[12] 2021, ‘Tata Steel Mining implements several employee friendly policies’, Orissadiary, 2 February, viewed online 3 February, https://orissadiary.com/tata-steel-mining-implements-several-employee-friendly-leave-policies/

Casimira Melican

Co-Editor, The Leak

Casimira Melican is the Research & Advocacy Officer and Project Manager of About Bloody Time at the Victorian Women’s Trust and has been co-editing The Leak with Jane Bennett since April 2020. Casimira has a Masters in International Relations from the University of Melbourne with a focus on policy, human rights and international governance. In 2016, Casimira co-wrote the VWT’s menstrual and menopause workplace wellbeing policy (also known as the menstrual leave policy) and has been leading advocacy on the policy since then. Casimira is passionate about the ability for policy and research to have real world impact and empower women, trans and gender diverse individuals within our society.