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OP-ED: Should Bangladesh incorporate menstrual leave into work policies?

  • Published at 09:16 pm June 6th, 2020
Sanitary napkins-Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune
Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

Other countries have been doing it for years, so why not us? 

Have you ever had a painful menstruation at work or just the night before? If you are a woman who suffers from chronic period pain, clinically termed as “Dysmenorrhea,” you probably have struggled to work with the feeling of a hundred arrows piercing through your abdomen.   

For some women, that “time of the month” causes little or no pain but it can be incapacitating for others. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, up to 20% of women suffer from acute menstrual cramps, severe enough to hinder daily activities. 

It not just causes distress at work but affects their productivity too. As a result, menstrual leave (paid or unpaid leave, given to a woman by her employer during menstruation) became globally recognized and many countries have already incorporated it in their laws or company policies. 

To understand the significance of implementing menstrual leave into our laws, you need to be informed of the pain that dysmenorrhea inflicts. 

It falls into two categories -- primary and secondary. Primary dysmenorrhea is the most common gynaecological problem that affects 9 out of 10 women and has no specific cause. 

It is defined as the cramping of the lower abdomen, back and/or thighs that usually begins one or two days before bleeding and normally lasts 48 to 72 hours once period commences. 

According to the National Health Services, pain is usually the worst when bleeding is the heaviest. Secondary dysmenorrhoea is a less common condition, caused by a disorder in a woman’s reproductive organs, such as endometriosis, adenomyosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, cervical stenosis, and fibroids. The pain usually starts earlier in the cycle and lasts longer compared to that of primary dysmenorrhea. 

Other symptoms are nausea or vomiting, diarrhoea, fatigue and/or headache. 

John Guillebaud, professor of reproductive health at University College London, has reported that patients have described menstrual pain to be “almost as bad as a heart attack.”

To further illustrate the suffering, Dr Dasha Fielder, an Australian GP, described period cramps to be very similar to the initial stages of labour (when cervix goes from zero to five centimetres in diameters). This is because both menstruation and childbirth pain originate from contractions and the cervix opening.  

Many Asian countries already have legislation offering menstrual leave. Japan has implemented provisions on unpaid menstrual leave in their Labour Standards Law 1947, in which Article 68 states that “when a woman for whom work during menstrual periods would be especially difficult has requested leave, the employer shall not employ such women on days of the menstrual period.” 

In 2013, Taiwan amended the Act of Gender Equality in Employment to include three days of menstrual leave every month while Indonesian women are guaranteed two days under the Labor Act 1948. 

Pursuant to Article 71 of the Labour Standards Law, South Korea not only grants one day of menstrual leave but also incorporates the provision of additional pay in case they eschew that leave. 

Anhui, Shanxi, and Hebei are the three provinces of China that have introduced such leave. 

Additionally, the lower house of Italy’s parliament commenced discussing a draft law in 2017 to consider implementation of three days of paid menstrual leave to women with severe pain. 

As of 2015, women in Zambia are legally entitled to take one day off due to their menstrual leave policy. If denied, the employee can prosecute her employer.  

Corporations like Nike have incorporated menstrual leave into their Code of Conduct in 2007 obliging the partners to become a signatory to their Memorandum of Understanding. 

Similarly, Culture Machine and Gonzoop, two companies in India, officially allow women to take menstrual leave. 

However, such policies are not short of controversy. Some view the move as regressive, contending that it could be misused as well as allow organizations to hire men over women. 

On the contrary, Bex Baxter, the director of Coexist, a company based in Bristol, said: “There is a misconception that taking time off makes a business unproductive -- actually it is about synchronizing work with the natural cycles of the body.” 

She contends that taking time off during menstrual cycle will make a workplace more efficient and creative. 

Menstrual leave is yet to be a subject of discussion in Bangladesh. The word period has always been circumvented, not just in Bangladesh but globally, since it is a taboo.

A quintessential example is pouring that blue liquid on a sanitary napkin to advertise its absorption power. 

As no one generally talks about period, people remain oblivious to the pain and suffering caused by it and the extent to which it might affect women. 

It is time we advocate for the implementation of menstrual leave policy at workplaces. 

It will not just promote our fundamental human rights issue (right to reasonable rest, recreation, and leisure) but laws are words and words of all form are solutions to the stigma. 

However, it would not be surprising to witness that the biggest critics of menstrual leave are women since they have strived hard to create equality in the workplace. Such a move might seem like reinforcing negative stereotypes of female workers. 

But people must not fail to contemplate that women have an innate cycle that is revitalizing and evolutionary. It is a power that should be valued and not treated as a sickness. 

Therefore, let us not expect women to “man up” when it comes to the pain at work, simply because it is a problem that a man does not even deal with. 

Barrister Muniza Kabir is a Lecturer at the Department of Law, North South University.  

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