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Let’s admit it, it’s an icky subject, but a much overdue one at that. Consequently, it comes as a welcome revelation that for Sri Lankan working women menstrual leave may well be in the pipeline, no pun intended. However, how practical would enforcing and policing it be in the Sri Lankan setting?

When menstruation leave was first introduced in Indonesia women in a particular workplace were all absent on the same days. Was this a unique case of menstrual synchrony – where the women experience their menstrual cycle at the same time – which has something to do with hormones? Highly unlikely, because the employer’s wife stumbled upon the women shopping together in a local shopping mall. In what could be referred to as a menstrual bonus the employer subsequently devised a plan where women were offered a bonus for working while menstruating! It’s reported that this resulted in full attendance.

Such are the practical difficulties for enforcing and policing menstrual or period leave as it is often referred to in many countries. Women and Child Affairs Minister,ChandraniBandara recently commented on plans to introduce menstrual leave for Sri Lankan working women. Although when contacted the minister said that the issue is still in “informal discussion stage”, it is a welcome gesture to discuss, however informally, something shrouded in secrecy: Menstruation.

A woman’s menstrual cycle being considered extremely private in Asian countries, it has been observed that women are quite reluctant to apply for menstrual leave. For example South Korean female workers have been entitled to a day off each month since 2001, but according to the Korea Times few female employees in male-dominated workplaces are eager to exercise this right.
Countries such as Japan, Indonesia and South Korea and Taiwan have laws guaranteeing leave for women in their periods.
Indonesian women are entitled to two days a month of menstrual leave. Some provinces in China has also put this law into force.
However, taking menstrual leave could be interpreted as a sign of weakness by women, often lobbying for equal rights. After all if you are demanding equal rights both women and men should be entitled to an equal number of leave, should they not? Japanese women, for example, are reluctant to use menstrual leave as it could widen gender pay gap.

Women at disadvantage?
If such a policy were to ever come into force in Sri Lanka it would be wise to allocate paid menstrual leave or a fair number of sick leave for both menstruating and non-menstruating women. But then again Sri Lankan women in addition to the normal holidays under maternity leave are entitled to 84 days of leave with full pay, another 84 on half pay and a further 84 days no pay. In this scenario wouldn’t companies find it more lucrative to hire males who are only entitled to paternity leave in addition to normal number of leave?

Indeed, Bandaranaike National Memorial Foundation, Director/CEO and Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism & Hotel Management, Chairman Sunil Dissanayake opines that women can be at a disadvantage if employers have to think twice about hiring women due to all the benefits they have to provide their female employees.

“It’s a very impractical policy,” says Dissanayake. “Menstruation is a very personal thing and there is simply no way of verifying if a woman is telling the truth without impinging on a woman’s privacy.” It’s not the sort of thing you’d want to advertise to your male colleagues, let alone your HR department. According to ‘Period policy in Asia: time off may be seen as a sign of weakness’, which appeared in the Guardian, in 2001 South Korea introduced a law that allows women to take one day of menstrual leave per month. However, many South Korean women, are extremely uncomfortable about asking male bosses for ‘menstrual leave’.
Dissanayake elaborated that there is no way of guaranteeing that women experiencing menopause will not abuse this policy. Do we go on a witch hunt every time an older woman applies for menstrual leave?

“We are entering an age of equal opportunity. In such a setting this policy may seem discriminatory against men.” Besides, Dissanayake quite correctly pointed out that Sri Lankans do not exercise discipline when taking leave off work and introducing such a policy at this juncture would subject it to abuse.
Taking into account the Indonesian incident how would a management police menstruation leave? Would HR be forced to pry into women’s pants or set up CCTV cameras in the toilets? Employers should take it on good faith. Asking for menstrual leave is not something to be shy about.

Practical difficulties
Then there are practical difficulties for granting menstrual leave. How bad do cramps have to be to warrant the day off? Besides women’s cycles are unpredictable. After all not every woman has a regular 28-day cycle.

“It needs to be identified whether menstrual leave is a medical option which would allow women to use it as extra sick leave. If so, it would mean that menstruation is deemed as a sickness, which in fact it is not,” said Consultant Obstetrics and Gynecology Specialist, Dr. Dhammika Silva.

“It sounds nice on paper. But there are practical difficulties to implementing such a policy,” says Dr. Silva. For example, questions such as whether a doctor’s recommendation is necessary for requesting period leave, will invariably arise. In a medical point of view, Silva explained that certifying who requires leave and when is extremely difficult. Silva says that, as a gynecologist, he finds policing would be extremely difficult. “There is no measure to judge the severity of the pain, because the degree of pain cannot be quantified,” said Silva.

However, research suggests that globally, one in 10 women suffer from menstrual cramps, known medically as dysmenorrhea, so painful that they could affect their productivity at workplace.

Conditions such as Endometriosis, Adenomyosis, fibroids, adhesions and infections that can make menstruation painful, but there is no guarantee that women suffering from such conditions will always experience debilitating pains, informs Silva.

“Besides, not all women have regular periods. Whereas some women menstruate for only three days, some others may menstruate for up to seven days. Who’s to judge which days are the most painful?” questions Silva. “There’s no guarantee that days of menstruation would fall on weekdays. The law can be implemented but there are practical difficulties to judging who deserves the leave and who doesn’t,” he maintained.

He suggested that the leave scheme should not depend on medical recommendations and an additional number of leave be incorporated into the total leave quota as menstrual leave. “So the women can choose on which days they want to take time off work,” says Silva, maintaining that this scheme would be dependent on the absolute honesty of the women applying for the leave. Silva opines that if such a policy is put into force it should be given as a right in recognition of the pain women undergo during periods in general. “It should be given as a privilege, which a woman has the right to choose when she wants to utilize it,” says Silva.

More pressing matters
When asked how practical a menstrual leave policy is in the Sri Lankan setting Hans Billimoria of the The Grassrooted Trust says that any policy that gives people options and choices is a welcome policy. “However, most women believe that menstruating in no way impinges on women’s ability to perform their duties. The only difference between women and men is what’s between their legs.”
“What the authorities should do is bring tampons into the Sri Lankan market. People don’t understand basic anatomy, because using tampons doesn’t affect virginity. Even when purchasing sanitary napkins it’s shrouded in secrecy. We could use a bit of sexual education for both school boys and girls,” says Billimoria. He went on to emphasize that menstruation is a natural process. Menstrual leave aside, Billimoria is of the opinion that having these discussions will help to demystify menstruation.