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All I Want is Aspirin, My Bed and a Hot Water Bottle!

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

In March 2017, Tiunike Online initiated a social media discussion on the merits of instituting (a) menstrual holiday(s) for women. Our angle was one of the human rights approach to rest and recuperation during this usually difficult time of every month, and weighed this against women’s agility for equalizing their performance in the work space, as compared to men. More fundamental is the balance between women's right to equitable treatment in the context of their sex and their equal rights to economic empowerment.

We built our argument on the premise of the recent generosity of the government of Zambia having accorded a monthly menstrual day off through an amendment of their labour laws. The response was overwhelming, from both men and women...and mixed.

The debate about employer flexibility to offer time off for women undergoing menstruation is picking up pace in Africa, and in Malawi and its neighbours. All because cramps, excessive bleeding, nausea, mood swings - the list goes on - tend to marry themselves to the greater part of a woman’s adult life. According to many women, menstruation is tormentous business, and has a particularly disruptive effect on working-/productive-age women (at home or in the office). In the work place, which is where we will dwell much of this discussion, it borders on accommodation of women's exceptional biological circumstances, productivity and career growth.

Supporters of the legal amendment rightfully point to the increased burdens regarding personal care as well as managing the requisite temporal sickness at work when menses occur. They purport it must be a right for women to and at work, which should be considered in contractual arrangements. Critics, on the other hand, point to the loss of time at work is one of the major contributing factors to women's sluggish progression in their careers. Instead, they point to provision of social care infrastructure that will help ease such burdens at work and should be a priority to employers. They say menstruation is a natural cycle that should not stand in the way of a woman's professional career.

A few of the women in this category have mentioned the critical role of parenting that refers to how mothers can be instrumental in coaching young women to weather the storms when menstruation comes into conflict with productivity. They claim it is a useful skill-building resource that households and families could take seriously in nurturing girls for a world of work.

Indeed, implementing human rights of working women in formal institutions should ensure that menstruation is not the barrier to progress and merit-based earnings that it risks causing. Equity measures ought to be built into the organizational human resource system not only to protect women, but mainly to make them just as productive. One part is to address organizational cultures that routinely negates the consequences of menstruation, giving men an automatic advantage over their female counterparts – even when they tend to perform work of equal value. This includes to neglect menstruation as a taboo topic in the mainframe of hiring and management processes, while embracing it as a natural phenomenon that is normal and, like it or not, not going anywhere.

Both men and women need to speak about it more – and more openly too - as an essential pathway to establishing actions that will allow for more flexibility in the workplace for women. It should be possible, thanks to advances in technology, that such days could enjoy a work-from-home option.

But the fear of abuse seems to linger on the minds of employers as well as teammates. Yet it misses the point that women have never enjoyed the unavoidable gruesomeness of menses. However, several women – including through our recent online conversation – seem to think that women, by design, can weather the twinges in their tummies and survive a day at work as they contribute to the success of the organization. The magic of Aspirin and a positive spirit together are a commanding combo that should get every woman through the day. After all, if you are a woman in the armed forces, or any other profession for that matter, giving in to cramps may easily compromise peace and security.

Others testify that no amount of ibuprofen will eliminate the pain some menses inflict. This justifies the Zambian day off, as staying at work adds just

as much value as staying in bed. Though this may potentially perpetuate the prejudices that make masculinity more superior to being feminine, and promotes the gender inequalities in the work place that we observe as outcomes of such prejudices.

Such a social industrial system is likely to be worse in parts of the world where the generosity of holidays exceeds the levelheadedness displayed by some countries. In this instance, while Italy followed suit, its lawmakers instead introduced a three-day holiday. This accounts for an annual disappearance from work of 36 days, should the women concerned succumb to the allure of such paid leisure. Add to this period one’s regular holiday entitlements, and you easily have a little more than two months of what would be easily perceived sloth every year.

The promotion of the menstrual holiday may raise important questions about efficiency of institutions, worker productivity and progress for humanity. Yet the persuasion of the rights perspective may be one that surpasses all, which should enable the discretion of the concerned women to take or leave the holiday based on the way they feel. Of course, it is important that they account for the dynamics in the workplace that should protect their interests as workers, a function the employer must be compelled to adopt wholesomely. This is going to be a tough call, and may need new and innovative laws to keep employer behavior in check. But the virtues of having the power to decide may be an important facet for how women may determine their future in the world of work.

We note that the wave of menstrual holidays is gaining strength as much as it is spreading across the world. The new countries joining the league are reinforcing the foundations that led the pioneers such as some select provinces of China, Indonesia, Japan (as early as the 1940s), South Korea and Taiwan into adapting their laws to exercise this flexibility. It is important to note, though, that countries like Japan have made strides in development and have made it to the top of the development scale, yet their gender record has been left rather wanting. And so has South Korea.

As per the foregoing discussion, a handful of countries are engaging their parliaments and leaders to discuss periods, a topic both men and women regularly find heavy to share publicly. However, as the discourse on gender equality continues, this discussion is likely to percolate every level of decision-making in the political and corporate worlds. And it must.

Might as well start it right away!


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