While the US is busy trying to end Roe v. Wade and transform people with uteruses into state-controlled incubators, Spain is on its way to becoming the first Western country to offer “menstrual leave” to workers, thanks to a new bill set to be approved by its government next week. The bill would offer three days of paid leave to workers dealing with extreme menstrual pain, and also ensure menstrual products are provided in schools.
“If someone has an illness with such symptoms, a temporary disability is granted, so the same should happen with menstruation—allowing a woman with a very painful period to stay at home,” Spain’s Secretary of State Equality and Gender Violence Angela Rodriguez told El Periodico newspaper, the Telegraph reports.
According to Anita Diamant, a period justice advocate and author of Period. End of Sentence, there have been different perspectives among feminists about menstrual leave for years, with some older advocates arguing that such a policy could actually be harmful to women and people who menstruate by acknowledging “weakness.” But Diamant’s own perspective is that a policy like this is an important step toward normalizing and acknowledging the experience of menstruation, and it should be implemented in the US and all countries.
“For me, it recognizes the fact that we don’t all live in the same body. Not all bodies are the same, and not all workers are the same,” she told Jezebel. “It shouldn’t be this idea that all bodies are like the male body that doesn’t have this necessary human function—which many people do deal with, without needing a day off, but they shouldn’t have to be the exception to the rule.”
Sure, workers with paid time off who might suffer from menstrual pain can ostensibly take sick or personal days, but it’s not fair for menstruating people to essentially have fewer paid days off than their non-menstruating counterparts. As Diamant put it, why should anyone have to use sick days for a “healthy bodily function” like menstruation? It’s also important to recognize how painful and debilitating periods can be. In 2018, after years of people who menstruate being mocked and dismissed for complaining about cramps, doctors ruled menstrual cramps can be “as painful as having a heart attack.” When you put it like that, three days of time off per year sounds like the bare minimum.
Other countries including Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, Zambia and South Korea currently have menstrual leave policies on the book. And notably, employers who don’t want to wait on their governments for policy change don’t have to—in 2020, the India-based, multinational food delivery company Zomato introduced 10 days of paid period leave for menstruating employees. In Mexico, employees of the federal court system have one day of paid menstrual leave per month.
Unfortunately, Diamant says, there have been issues with the enforcement of these policies, and encouraging menstruating workers to actually take the time off can be difficult. Menstrual leave policies can also exclude people who don’t have paid time off and are paid hourly, people who work in agriculture and may not have access to a bathroom, or people who could lose their jobs for missing work. These policies may be a step forward, but it will take sustained effort to ensure lower-paid workers and the most marginalized menstruating people aren’t left behind.
Still, offering “menstrual leave” is one vital step countries like the US could take to support menstruating people—though it can’t be the only one. Several states have recently passed legislation to repeal the bogus sales tax on menstrual products, a tax that implies period products are non-essential and a “luxury,” while sexual health products that are gendered male, like Viagra, don’t have this tax. In some states, the sales tax can be as high as 10% on top of the sticker price of a box of pads and tampons. This, Diamant notes, can be the difference “between food and menstrual products” for low-income households, and contributes to the phenomenon known as period poverty.
When people can’t afford menstrual hygiene products, they’re more likely to miss school or work, not to mention they’re put at greater risk of contracting dangerous infections, cervical cancer, and other health conditions. And it’s the most marginalized members of society, like people of color, low-income people, unhoused people, and incarcerated people, who face the greatest barriers to accessing menstrual products. In particular, some incarcerated people earn just $0.75 or less from prison labor per day, and in some prisons that offer period products, prices can range from $2.63 for 24 pads to $4 for just eight tampons.
We’ve seen some progress on this front, like a recent Massachusetts bill to require all public schools, shelters, prisons, and correctional facilities to provide free and easily accessible period products. Currently, 11 states have laws that require menstrual products to be free in schools, five states have made them free in jails, and just one state—Illinois—requires products to be offered in shelters. Twenty-eight states still continue to tax these products.
As Spain becomes the first Western country to offer paid menstrual leave, Diamant is hopeful this could set a precedent for a country like the US. If nothing else, the bill is important in its ultimate validation of menstruating people’s pain after years of medical and societal gaslighting. “This pain has always been kind of dismissed, especially for people with less privilege like women of color,” she said. “This is acknowledging that if we have that kind of pain, we should be able to get the care we need.”