Paid Leave for Period Cramps: Sounds Good, but It Actually Sucks

Next month, China's Anhui province will institute a "paid menstrual leave" policy, which means women will be entitled to take time off for severe period pain. But similar laws around the world have inspired more sexism in the workplace, not less.

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Feb 17 2016, 10:18pm

Photo via Flickr user rbmay

Cramps! They're bad. But are they worse than work?

A new policy in China's central Anhui province suggests they could be. According to the news outlet China.org, the region is set to follow in the footsteps of the country's Hubei and Hainan provinces by offering women one or two days off if they suffer from severe menstrual cramps. The new "paid menstrual leave" policy will require "a certificate from a legal medical institute or hospital" and take effect on March 1.

Read more: Two States Will Let Women Get Birth Control Without a Doctor in 2016

While this may initially sound like a godsend to many sufferers of monthly abdominal agony, policies like this are neither new nor without controversy. The first paid menstrual leave policy was instated in Japan in 1947; similar regulations also exist in Taiwan, South Korea, and Indonesia. But although some women—like 24-year-old Shao Jinwen interviewed by CNN—say they would jump at the chance to take time off during that time of the month, others feel these regulations are theoretical and idealistic at best.

Indeed, it seems that no country has been able to implement paid menstrual leave successfully. In Korea, men's rights activists campaign against the cause. In Indonesia, the regulations require companies to perform an invasive "physical check" before granting the requested leave. When a politician proposed a two-days-a-month menstrual leave policy in Russia in 2013, his justification veered so far into sexism that it was pretty much only damaging to women: "The pain for the fair sex is often so intense that it is necessary to call an ambulance," wrote the nationalist lawmaker Mikhail Degtyaryov. "Strong pain induces heightened fatigue, reduces memory and work-competence and leads to colorful expressions of emotional discomfort. Therefore scientists and gynecologists look on difficult menstruation not only as a medical but also a social problem."

In all these countries, women also report feeling too busy and too scared to approach their (often male) bosses to take advantage of their entitled time off. As VICE News reported last November, many women in China feel menstrual leave will simply allow employers to discriminate against them in a system that is already stacked against them. In other words, as one commenter on the Chinese Sina news site wrote in response to a similar initiative in the Guangdog province, "The policy is good, but in the end it will just make employers not want to hire women.

Something about saying it's because your period that just doesn't feel acceptable.

Still, although most of us would be loath to describe our menstrual pain as a "social problem," it is...a problem. In a Canadian study conducted in 2005, 51 percent of women who got regular periods "reported that their activities had been limited" by the pain they experienced during menstruation, and 17 percent said they'd had to miss school or work because of their periods.

While it's extremely unlikely that America—the only industrialized nation without mandated paid maternity leave—would institute even a problematic paid menstrual leave policy any time soon, it's nevertheless something to think about as you fill up your hot water bottle. Ariana is a 25-year-old international development worker based in New York who says she calls in sick from work two to three times a year because of period symptoms—though that's not what she tells her boss.

"My excuse is that I'm not feeling well," Ariana said. "Sometime I'll go so far as to just say I got food poisoning. Something about saying it's because your period that just doesn't feel acceptable. Perhaps it's because all of my bosses have been men aged 40 and over. Or perhaps it's society. Whatever it is, food poisoning allows you to bounce back by the end of the day and brings pity from co-workers."

Read more: Sticking Weed in Your Vagina Can Help Your Period Cramps

When I initially asked Ariana if she would support mandatory sick days for menstrual pain, she was initially very supportive, though the logistics and potential backlash seemed difficult to reconcile with the legitimate need to address the issue.

"Normally, I'd say one extra day a month doesn't sound like a big deal," she said. "On the other hand, that's 12 a year, which is pretty substantial. If women could 'make it up' at another time in the year—i.e., work a Saturday—that might be a good option."

Ultimately, though, we agreed that a better solution all around would be a less work-focused culture—which would benefit all genders equally. "[There could be] a [number of] fixed 'flexible sick days' for men and women," Ariana said. "That could include mental health, which seems necessary for both men and women. Americans need more vacation anyway."