Oratile Mpuchane discusses this topic with Candice Chirwa, a renowned menstrual activist and author, and delves into the matter from a labour law perspective.
The debate surrounding menstrual, or period leave as a fundamental right for all female employees has been ongoing in the conversation on gender equity. Equity, in this context, refers to providing everyone with the necessary resources to succeed. In recent years, workforce policies promoting inclusion and diversity have increased, with examples such as paternity leave benefits and paid menstrual leave being implemented by some organizations and countries. Countries such as Zambia, Indonesia, Japan, Australia, and most recently Spain have approved legislation allowing menstruators to take leave during their periods.
As a woman, I am aware of the debilitating pain that many experience during their menstrual cycles, which can cause them to miss work or school, ultimately affecting their productivity. Research suggests that 15-20% of menstruators will experience moderate to severe cramps in their lifetime, and a further 10% will have pain that is not well controlled with over-the-counter medication. While Botswana has not implemented any such policy, the Secretary for Gender Affairs in the Botswana Sector of Educators Trade Union, Chatapiwa Mabutho, said last year at a labour conference hosted by the Institute of Labour Employment Studies (ILES) that the union was aware of the concept of menstrual leave.
To understand menstrual leave in more detail, I spoke with Candice Chirwa, author, gender and social impact leader, and founder of Qrate, an NPO working toward the realisation of a period positive world, where women and girls have access to affordable sanitary products, proper sanitation and education. In our conversation, Candice explained that as a policy, menstrual leave allows space for reduced stigma about periods and recognises the physical and often debilitating discomfort caused by having periods. Introducing menstrual leave at work and at school reinforces the idea that women and girls do not have to choose between getting an education, being paid a salary or suffering through illness. Last year, Unilever, a global FMCG group, announced that it recognised menstrual leave as part of its sick leave policy and provided women in the company access to sanitary towels. Unilever’s policy gives women 12 days of paid menstrual leave annually. While this type of leave is not yet common in our country, we must commend the strides made by the Zambian government. According to reports, every month, every woman in Zambia is legally entitled to a day off and they do not need a medical explanation for that. This is called “Mother’s Day” and an employer can be prosecuted for denying said leave. Of course, I am fascinated by how that affects productivity, what happens when 5 or more women in the company takes a comfort day? What happens in the instance of small businesses that need present resources?
“We should be looking at this on the basis of case-by-case examples to see whether it is working because I think what’s interesting is that in certain instances menstrual leave can work in a corporate setting and sometimes not. If we look at industries that require menstruators to be on the assembly line, on their feet all day working in retail that’s a different conversation labour unions and/or HR managers need to explore and look at what policies they review and introduce” Candice said.
These are all valid points but what does it mean for feminism and the equal rights many generations of women fought for and are still fighting for? Interestingly, while I was speaking with Candice she received a message on social media. This woman had taken a day off due to her debilitating period pains. Her employer was now taking disciplinary action against her for this and as a result she felt she was “being punished for having uterus.” From an employment law perspective, there are key fundamentals every employee must adhere to.
- leave must be approved before it is taken
- an employer or manager must be notified if you will not be at work and unless otherwise prescribed
- the employer must be furnished with a doctor’s note.
It is important that we recognise that laws and provisions such as menstrual leave and/or mental health days are not meant to be abused by the employees they benefit and furthermore that this not further increase the equality gap between the genders. Organisations including Emang Basadi Women’s Association are actively monitoring global discourse around Menstruation and their spokesperson points out that “organisational cultures and norms are normally designed in ways that are orientated towards the male norm, with menstruation and gynaecological health issues affecting women ignored.”
Menstrual leave looks good on paper, but its implementation and tracking will be difficult. This is a complex and multifaceted issue which will require sensitivity on the part of employer and honesty on the part of the employee to avoid abuse. Addressing the underlying stereotypes and discrimination that contribute to the need for menstrual leave is important and so is the need to recognise the unique challenges women face during their cycle – which should not impede business productivity.
How complicated is the issue of menstrual leave?
Quite complicated especially when considering matters of gender fluidity, privacy, discrimination and labour equality. In our diverse and ever changing world there is a need for this kind of flexibility but this could also perpetuate stereotypes that menstruation is a weakness, and that women are less capable or productive during their periods. Thereby possibly leading to women being passed over for promotions or opportunities due to a biological function. This is setback to the decades long women’s labour right movement.
In the case of transgender men, non-binary persons and women who menstruate, it is tricky to determine as issues of sexual orientation vs preference become material and may complicate things further. Violations of privacy and victimisation are some of examples of pitfalls in its implementation as transgender and non-binary persons will also have to benefit from this policy even if they do not identify as women.
Currently menstrual leave benefits are not provided for in the Botswana Employment Act, however this does not prevent employers from offering some through internal policies. In the absence of legislation, where a menstrual benefit is considered, it is important that an employer, taking into account, the nature of the business, determine, amongst others: –
- what would be a reasonable leave entitlement;
- will the menstrual leave accrue in a similar manner to annual leave?
- does an employee require a doctor’s note to access the benefit?
- what privacy measures will be adopted to protect the employee and prevent perpetuation of false and sexist narratives?
- who is entitled to this benefit considering matters of gender fluidity?
The softer aspects of organisational culture to enable better and inclusive working conditions for people is evidence that indeed we are progressing as a society and this commendable. But there is still a lot of research that needs to be done on the efficacy and impact of menstrual leave on the quality of life for menstruators. Like Candice, I agree that there is a need to eliminate the taboo around menstruation and for more men to be brought into the conversation.
Finally, we encourage debate amongst employers and law makers in Botswana on the possibility of menstrual leave. We will be closely monitoring the developments on menstrual leave and are available to assist any employer should they wish to implement a menstrual leave benefit.
Oratile Mpuchane is a Candidate attorney at Peo Legal. She holds an LLB from the University of Botswana (UB). Peo Legal encourages the expression of diverse views and thought leadership.
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