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Italy is weighing a law granting paid leave for women with painful periods

Menstruation is no joke.

Photo by Rebecca Repetti

Cramps and bloating, headaches and blood. Is it any surprise some women opt to stay home when menstruation begins?

But while a handful of Asian countries have actually codified the right of women to have sanctioned work leave during their periods, Western nations haven’t given much thought to a menstrual leave.

Until now.

Italy’s parliament is currently mulling a bill that would enshrine the right for women to take up to three days per month for those who experience particularly excruciating and debilitating periods.

The reaction has ranged from celebratory to doubtful.

The Italian edition of Marie Claire magazine, as quoted in the Independent, hailed the bill as a “standard bearer of progress and sustainability.” Others were a bit less sanguine. Lorenza Pleuteri wrote in the Italian women’s magazine Donna Moderna that if the law passes, “employers could become even more oriented to hire men rather than women.”

But wait. Period leave?

Yes. Severe cramps. Blood. Your own couch. A hot water bottle. Privacy. For women who spend a day or more doubled over in miserable pain, the need for period leave is serious.

The idea of period leave actually began in Japan in the late 1940s, when the country created a nationwide labor law ensuring that women who “suffered heavily” could take leave. A similar law has been passed in several Chinese provinces. South Korea created one in 2001. Taiwan passed a law in 2013 offering a paltry three days per year (in theory, women have a period each month), and Indonesian women can take two days per month.

Japan’s Labor Standards Law was passed in 1947, when women were suddenly working outside the home in numbers so large that many employers weren’t yet prepared to accommodate their bathroom needs.

But in 2016, the Guardian found that most Japanese women didn’t take their allotted leave — either out of fear of revealing their personal health information to colleagues, or out of concern that their male cohorts would find it irksome.

The majority of Japanese women who spoke to the Guardian about their leave policy were skeptical about using it. “[I]f you’re trying to prove yourself in a man’s world, you’re not going to take menstrual leave in case it’s interpreted as a sign of weakness,” one woman at a Japanese firm told the newspaper.

An entire story about the Chinese version of the policy in China’s state-owned Global Times newspaper was titled simply, “Menstrual leave policy could cost women their career.”

As a 2014 piece on menstrual policies in the Atlantic points out, perhaps the best example for why some feminists are a bit skeptical about such laws comes from a Russian lawmaker who proposed a period leave policy in his country because “Strong pain induces heightened fatigue, reduces memory and work-competence and leads to colourful expressions of emotional discomfort.” The notion that women should stay home on their periods because they might inflict “colourful expressions of emotional discomfort” on their colleagues is not exactly the most feminist idea.

Until now, the idea of period leave has been so unusual in the West that the Guardian did a whole profile in 2016 of one creative co-working space in Bristol, England, that added period leave for their (majority female) employees to meet the needs of workers who were refusing to take leave even when they were clearly, visibly in severe pain.

In the case of Italy, the debate has just begun. “Women are already taking days off because of menstrual pains, but the new law would allow them to do so without using sick leaves or other permits,” economist Daniela Piazzalunga told the Independent. “However, on the other hand I wouldn’t exclude that [if the law is approved] this would lead to negative repercussions: The demand for female employees among companies might decrease, or women could be further penalised both in terms of salary and career advancement.”

Given that, in the United States, the Freedom Caucus just last week debated removing insurance for ‘maternity coverage’ as an “essential health benefit,” and has long lagged behind the industrialized world in granting women paid leave for childbirth, it’s unlikely American women will see any such policies considered at a national level anytime soon.