We will all benefit from a menstrual leave policy

On 23 April 2021, a South African business owner took to Twitter to announce her joy at the introduction of paid menstrual leave for her female employees. This sparked a conversation that showed that the concept of period leave is both foreign to many and so complex that its merits are easily be lost under the weight of period shame and unfounded economic concerns.

A day later, the executive director of Dinidari Foundation, Ndi Kato, took a leaf from her SA counterpart and did something similar for female employees in the organisation. Female employees, she said, will have the option to work from home and also work half a whole in their periods.

Period or menstrual leave – an employment policy that allows individuals to take additional paid or unpaid leave from work during menstruation – is not a new concept.

Japan has had a period leave policy for 70+ years. It isn’t alone in Asia. South Korea adopted the same policy in 1953 – less than a decade after Japan did – and other Asian countries like India, Indonesia and China are not left out.

Back home in Africa, Zambia led the way in 2017 when it updated its labour laws to include what they code-named ‘Mother’s Day’ that allows Zambian women to take a paid day off per month for period pain. It sparked a similar conversation as did the announcement by Ndi Kato on Twitter.

Some of those concerns include:

  1. Worry that the policy will mean that women have to declare to bosses and colleagues that they are on their period leave – a possibility that terrifies many women thanks to years of period shame.
  2. Concern over increased hiring discrimination by managers who will begrudge their female employees a day or days off work due to productivity concerns.
  3. The fear that normalising a policy like that will give ammunition to those against gender equality who tenaciously hold on to ‘biological determinism’ – the idea that women are unequal because of the biological needs of their bodies.
  4. The economic impact of said policy overall.

These concerns are shared by both women and men and are as old as the first iteration of the adoption of this policy – Japan’s 70+ years.

We asked 3 Nigerian women what they think about these concerns.

Why menstrual leave and what do Nigerian women think about it?

OG*, a 26-year-old career woman based in Abuja, believes that period leave is a long-overdue necessity.

“I had one of my worst cramps last month and a day off, or even a work arrangement like flexible hours or work-from-home would have helped me greatly. I powered through, but my productivity was incredibly low,” she said.

It is a necessity many women struggle to accept because of the shame attached to the topic of periods specifically, and all things women generally. She believes that that should end because periods are increasingly about more than women.

“Periods shouldn’t be a big deal. They are a biological function like any other, so even if the policy requires that you declare your menstrual cycle to a manager or your colleagues, I don’t see that as a problem,” she said, “and many men have a habit of saying things like women are privileged because they get pregnancy leave, for instance, an acquaintance mentioned that recently and I retorted that if it is easy he should go have a baby.”

“Besides, it isn’t just women that have periods, trans men do too. So if it is a privilege at least it isn’t reserved for women only.”

27-year-old Nancy* sees things differently.

Having worked in the core North and her South-South hometown of Delta State, her workplace experience traverses two very contrasting cultures yet one thing remains similar across both – workplace sexual harassment of women.

“It shouldn’t be a big deal to talk about your menstrual cycle with a supervisor or colleagues because whether we speak about it or not, women have periods,” she said, “the problem is I can’t be comfortable talking to a supervisor or colleague about my period when they had made rebuffed sexual advances in the past. It is an invitation to pervert to sexualise an innocuous but often painful biological function.”

The sexualisation of women’s bodies remains a deeply entrenched cultural malaise. A conversation about public breastfeeding still raises raucous because men see women’s breasts as only organs to please their sexual gaze. Whatever other function they serve are secondary things that best remain out of sight and out of mind.

That conversation has however happened and progress, if slow, is building. The same is not the case with periods.

Benue based Tymah* (25) believes in normalising this in workplaces through a policy that forces everyone to face periods if only in official spaces.

“I wouldn’t mind sharing the details of my period with a manager or colleague. I believe it will be beneficial in demystifying periods. It is the mystery built into all things womanhood that perpetuates the shame and the minimization of the pain that is often involved in menses (period,)” she said, “it isn’t only dysmenorrhea (period pain) that many don’t appreciate the extent of, it is also the hormonal changes before and after periods that can mess up one’s mood.”

“I bet you didn’t know some women have two cycles a month.” I didn’t.

The question of whether the demystification of periods and building a culture of flexibility to make room for women to flourish better is worthy of enforcing a policy that could potentially expose women to increased hiring discrimination is a trickier one.

Nancy doesn’t think so.

“Women are already discriminated against for other reasons, a period leave policy will hardly make that any worse,” she said, “the last interview I went after scaling through to the point where I could resume the following week, HR invited me for a tete a tete. Do you know what they told me? That I should guarantee them I wouldn’t get pregnant on the job until I marry.”

Their logic, she figured, is that as a single woman her worth is high because they could hope to get years of uninterrupted productivity from her before she gets married and faces what they believe is the necessity of childbirth.

It is a mindset that has cost many women opportunities in Nigeria. Men, who are largely in the position to hire employees, will choose a less competent man over a woman because, “she could get pregnant on the job, and will then be forced to take maternity leave.”

OG* thinks the economic impact will be positive in the long run rather than the opposite.

“Productivity loss is a reality that exists at this very moment due to things like burn out and minor distractions, and they stack up per annum to hours of lost productivity. Some of this is due to period-related issues that make people who have periods less productive when they are on their periods,” she said.

“It isn’t just cramps and aches and discomfort, it is also you checking every couple hours if you’re stained. Using the restroom to change pads. Having a mood that strains your interpersonal relationship with colleagues. The list is long. Acknowledging this and making room for flexibility will benefit corporations in the long run.”

Many agree.

Joe Connolly, Founder and CEO of Visana Health, is quoted in a piece published by Forbes to have said of the impact of period leave policy on the economy that it will in fact increase productivity.

“For women with severe menstrual pain due to conditions like endometriosis, productivity at work during menstruation is significantly hindered. Employers are trading presenteeism – when women are at work but are significantly less productive due to menstrual diseases – for menstrual leave.”

“Endometriosis and related diseases can cause significant workplace stress, and employers with progressive menstrual policies demonstrate sympathy for stigmatized menstrual disorders that women often fear disclosing. Ultimately, this results in improved employee satisfaction and reduced turnover,” he added.

What could a period policy look like in Nigeria?

A fear shared by Western opposers of this policy and their Nigerian counterparts is that women’s absence in the workforce due to period leave will mean men will bear the brunt of excess work. The weight looks staggering in the US for instance where the workforce is made up of over 50% women.

That opposition is however built on the assumption that women’s absence will translate to reduced productivity on their part. As we have seen, the reality is the opposite.

“People tend to be more dedicated when they feel that they’re treated as human beings,” said OG*, “a more dedicated worker that is loyal to your company goals because you see them will ultimately bring greater value.”

A great majority of women – as studies have shown in Japan and other countries with period leave policy – are unlikely to take the leave even though it is available. The idea then, that opening the door for this will lead to abuse and as a consequence increased workload for male employees is pure hysterics. The data doesn’t agree with that.

What period leave policy will achieve is greater comfort for women who will feel seen as fully human and not the idealised perfect creatures who are also somehow flawed that patriarchal society sees. It will slowly lift the fog of mystery around periods and usher in a world where period shame is a thing of the past. And if at all men must centre themselves in this somehow, this will open the door wider for more humane work arrangements for all genders.

Nobody will be left out.

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