Spain menstrual leave Canada

Canada should consider legislating menstrual leave

“Last week, Spain became the first European country to grant those suffering from disabling periods a three-day ‘menstrual leave’ from work — a step in the right direction for gender equality.”

The first time I realized that some women suffer from debilitating periods, I was in my teens. My older cousin, hot water bottle plopped on her stomach, told me she almost always missed school on the first day of her period because she bled too profusely to attempt sitting in class. 

The second time, I was in my early 30s, paddling with my women’s dragonboat team during a 6 a.m. practice at the Olympic Basin. With tears in her eyes, one of my teammates practically begged our coach to bring the boat back in so she could get off. I still remember her lying on the dock, doubled over in pain, as our boat slowly pushed away to continue practice. No one said anything. We were getting ready to race at Nationals and little things like “period cramps” weren’t about to garner much sympathy from our two male coaches training a competitive team. They were good coaches, but they were also men in their early 20s. They had no clue. 

Frankly, neither did I, and I’ve been intimately acquainted with my own period since the age of 14. But my periods have always been a mild inconvenience more than a disabling condition. Pop an Advil, rest up for a day and I’m good. It turns out that’s not the case for everyone.

Dysmenorrhea is no minor ailment

Dysmenorrhea is the medical term for painful periods, a condition that affects 45–95% of women of reproductive age. But for a much smaller group (2%–29%), those periods are accompanied by severe pain, usually brought on by more serious conditions, like endometriosis or uterine fibroids. We’re not talking mild cramps and PMS here. We’re talking about excruciating monthly menstruation; excessive bleeding, severely painful cramps, nausea, diarrhea, dizziness and even vomiting. For some women, the pain is so severe that it keeps them from doing their normal activities for several days a month. 

You might have seen the news last week. Spain became the first European country to grant those suffering from disabling periods a “menstrual leave” from work, allowing women, transgender and non-binary workers who menstruate the right to a three-day “menstrual” leave of absence. That’s on top of government-mandated paid vacation or sick leave. And yes, you still need a doctor’s note to get this leave.

The bill introduced by Spain’s left-wing government is part of a broader package on sexual, reproductive and trans rights that includes allowing anyone 16 and over to get an abortion in any public hospital without needing their parents’ or legal guardian’s consent. The new law also includes the provision of free contraceptives and the morning-after pill. Equality Minister Irene Montero hailed the legislation as “a historic day of progress for feminist rights.” It’s certainly a far cry from what’s currently happening south of the Canadian border. 

Does it help or hinder women’s equality?

But the legislation has inspired its share of resistance and handwringing, as some politicians, pundits and trade unions worry it could stigmatize women in the workplace and create unease among their male colleagues. I’ve already seen some men express concerns about a menstrual leave being “unfair,” to which I say, if you suffer from painful periods, then I wholeheartedly encourage you to apply for one, too. 

I don’t understand the debate. How is legislation that recognizes the reality of women’s bodies stigmatizing and not just a reasonable solution to a problem some face — providing much-needed dignity and flexibility according to their specific needs? I also see some naysayers ask why women can’t just use their sick days for their period pain. Because, my good men, even us menstruators get sick from the common cold and other ailments and will require those sick days. It should be noted that roughly half of workers in Canada don’t even have federally mandated paid sick days on the job at all, so that’s a lot of people for whom this is a moot point.

Legislation alone, however, without a change in societal attitudes towards periods, isn’t enough. A look at countries that already offer menstrual leave quickly confirms that. Japan has had a menstrual leave policy in place since 1947. Women can request it from their employer, and no medical documentation is even required. 

Useless if not used

But a recent article in Tokyo Weekender reveals that because of the legislation’s vagueness regarding implementation, women’s menstrual leave is “often unpaid — and unused.” Only 10% of women apply for menstrual leave and most are reluctant to use it when they have a male superior. South Korea also introduced a one-day menstrual leave per month in 2001, but, there too, it’s rarely used for the reasons cited above. 

Interviews with women in these countries shows that, even with menstrual leave enshrined in law, most are reluctant to use it for fear of being seen as “weak” or as receiving privileges that men don’t get. But since when is it a privilege or a perk to receive time off for a painful medical condition? Resistance to the policy says more about our society’s gaslighting when it comes to women’s health, persistent period-shaming attitudes and a capitalist world that encourages workers to tough it out and work through the pain.

In 2016, a British company decided to implement a menstrual leave for its mostly female workforce. The company’s CEO is quoted in a Guardian article explaining how some women at work are bent over because of the pain caused by their periods. “Despite this,” she says, “they feel they can’t go home because they don’t class themselves as unwell. There is a misconception that taking time off makes a business unproductive — actually it’s about synchronizing work with the natural cycles of the body.” 

Why do women suffer in silence?

A 2019 Dutch study surveying over 30,000 women between the ages of 15 and 45 found that period pain is linked to losing almost nine days of productivity at school and work per year. Menstrual leave isn’t a pointless and unfair perk but an acknowledgment of a condition that profoundly affects many women’s lives. 

I’ve written about period shame and period poverty before. The secrecy surrounding menstruation allows many to consider a normal (and dare I say vital, if we want humanity to continue reproducing) biological function be treated as taboo. This shame enables policy makers and business owners to bypass legislation that considers our needs and our reality. It’s no different than how menopause and sexual health are often ignored or minimized by the scientific and medical community, preventing solutions and encouraging women to suffer in silence. 

If women are socially conditioned to be embarrassed about discussing their period pain or what it costs them financially, or in terms of quality of life and lost productivity, then it absolves legislators from having to do anything about it. It also absolves managers and bosses from having to accommodate them. 

Destigmatizing women’s health 

Menstrual health is a matter of human rights. Anything that reduces period stigma and normalizes what women experience every bloody month (pun intended) for over 40 years of their lives is a good thing. We’re not a special interest group, we’re half of the global population.

Back in 2015, I was one of many who wrote about the need for the removal of unfair and gender-based taxation for menstrual products in Canada, which finally became reality. Seven years later, the feds launched a pilot project to distribute $25-million in menstrual products, for free, over a two-year period. 

“We’d never ask people to bring their own toilet paper to work,” said Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan Jr. at the time. “So why do we do that with menstrual products?” 

While the case for free tampons and pads in schools and universities continues to be made in the U.S. and Canada, others are light years ahead. In 2022, Scotland became the first country in the world to make period products free for all. Once upon a time, this would have been unheard of, but we’re collectively starting to realize that period equity is about upholding gender equality. 

Menstrual leave is just one more step in the right direction. Like accessible and affordable (or free) menstrual products, accessible and safe abortion services and maternity leave, menstrual leave is not a perk or a luxury, but a necessity for those who require it. It’s time for Canada to consider legislating it as well. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.