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CommunityHealthIs the Middle East ready to embrace menstrual leave? 

In May, the Spanish government approved a law granting paid medical menstrual leave for women who suffer from severe period pain. The decision, which makes Spain the first European country to offer this kind of leave at a state level, made headlines globally and boosted lobbying efforts in other nations around the world.  Spanish Equality Minister Irene Montero proudly pronounced that “periods will no longer be taboo”, adding that there would be “no more going...
Mark LomasAugust 25, 202226 min
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In May, the Spanish government approved a law granting paid medical menstrual leave for women who suffer from severe period pain. The decision, which makes Spain the first European country to offer this kind of leave at a state level, made headlines globally and boosted lobbying efforts in other nations around the world. 

Spanish Equality Minister Irene Montero proudly pronounced that “periods will no longer be taboo”, adding that there would be “no more going to work with pain, no more taking pills before arriving at work and having to hide the fact we’re in pain that makes us unable to work”. Indeed, a 2019 study from the Netherlands’ Radboud University found that an average of nine days of productivity were lost each year to working through menstrual pain and other premenstrual symptoms.  

Spain is not the only country to offer menstrual leave, with the likes of Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Taiwan and Zambia all having laws in place, all with varying degrees of success. More on that later. 

UAE pioneers

In the UAE, there is no law in place but Fine Hygienic Holding, a wellness company with dual headquarters in Dubai and Amman, last year pioneered the offering of a day a month for menstrual leave to female employees. For Fine’s American CEO James Michael Lafferty, it was a straightforward decision to add menstrual leave to the organization’s package of benefits, which also includes paid leave for anyone who has suffered a miscarriage or stillbirth, and four months of paid maternity leave. 

“This is basic science,” Lafferty tells Livehealthy. “It is something women go through which is uncomfortable that men do not. It is a fact. Just like good maternity leave is common sense, this is common sense. It is the right thing to do. I don’t know if introducing menstrual leave has made us more attractive to women, but I do know that our overall package is well-regarded. We can’t please everyone all the time, but the feedback has been very good.  

“We view gender diversity as a competitive advantage and want to attract and retain women as best we can. I may be a male CEO but I take a very active role in trying to promote an environment that is open and welcoming, and we really feel we are a beacon of light for gender diversity and supporting our employees.

“Anything that is improving the status of women in the workplace is a welcome thing. We are proud that we were a first mover and I’ve had multiple other CEOs reach out to me to ask questions. These are positive steps.” 

Lafferty’s approach has already made waves, with global heavyweight Unilever implementing a similar policy across MENA last August after reading about Fine’s introduction of menstrual leave. The project, which is about to celebrate its first anniversary, was driven by Nadine El-hadad, HR Director and Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Lead at Unilever. 

“I am Egyptian, an Arab female and Muslim, so I understand the taboo very well,” El-hadad explains to Livehealthy. “In Egypt, if you go and buy sanitary pads from a pharmacy, they wrap it in a newspaper, put it in a black plastic bag and then put that in a paper bag. It’s like you are buying drugs. The stigma is magnified in the Arab world but why should I have to whisper ‘I’m on my period’?

“Ultimately, we have recognized as a company that if women are struggling with their periods, what benefit is there for them coming into work and suffering silently? This is a biological need and we really want to break the stigma around saying ‘I have my period’. That’s why we give women a day off each month and we are proud of being the first multinational in the MENA region to offer menstrual leave.

“You don’t need to get approval from your line manager and you don’t have to take it if you don’t want to because women’s bodies react to menstruation in different ways. And although we call it menstrual leave, it’s for menopause too. We’re not saying only those up to a certain age can take it – it’s a day of relief. You’re going through menopause? Take it. You’re going through menstruation? Take it. Don’t want to take it? Don’t take it.”

Other companies to offer menstrual leave have faced mixed reactions. In 2017, Indian organisation Culture Machine introduced menstrual leave, promising to help ‘destigmatize menstruation’. But the company then proceeded to make all of its female employees take the time off, whether they needed it or not, so that they didn’t have to mention periods in the office. 

Zomato fared a little better when founder and CEO Deepinder Goyal announced in August 2020 that his company would be offering 10 days of period leave per year in a bid to “foster a culture of trust, truth and acceptance”. Goyal also told his male employees that “colleagues expressing that they are on their period leave shouldn’t be uncomfortable for us”.  

Morocco too?

While individual companies are beginning to act, there had been little movement from governments in the Arab world towards introducing menstrual leave, until three Moroccan politicians proposed a new bill in June. The three men – Said Chakir, Mustapha Bin Fakih, and Mustapha Al Dahmani – suggested a two-day monthly menstrual leave in a move that caused significant debate according to Basma El Atti, a Moroccan journalist who works for The New Arab. 

“There have been a lot of discussions – of course some people really support the decision and others criticise it,” El Atti explains to Livehealthy. “Many people applauded the proposal but others criticized it as reverse sexism and suggested men should also be able to take two days. As you’d expect, there have been many sexist comments.

“In Morocco, talking about periods is kind of taboo but I don’t think it would push women to shy away from taking menstrual leave. In Islamic society usually women between them can discuss periods but when it comes to men it is not common. 

To be honest, no party has really talked about it enough yet – we need more information. Morocco recently legalized fatherhood leave, which wasn’t a thing before so there are some more progressive laws. But when it comes to things that may be related to Islam, lawmakers – both progressive and conservative – often shy away from discussions out of fear of alienating people.”

El Atti admits she is somewhat suspicious of the politicians’ motives given that they are from a traditionally conservative political party. She also feels there are more pressing gender issues that need addressing. 

“Female citizens here are still missing a lot of basic rights. We don’t have equality in inheritance because we are still relying on an outdated law and if women are victims of sexual assault and went to the police to report it, they can be arrested because they had a sexual relationship outside of marriage. It may seem like the menstrual leave law is a positive step but there are many more urgent issues.”

Not always well-received

Several countries already offer menstrual leave but their laws have not been universally popular – and many have been downright problematic. 

Japan passed its menstrual leave law in 1947, though a recent survey by Nikkei Intelligence Group found that less than 10 percent of Japanese women take it. Article 73 of South Korea’s Labour Standards Act secures just one day of unpaid leave a month for female employees but again there has appeared to be a reluctance from women to ask for it.

Indonesia has offered menstrual leave since 1948, but since 2003 the law has been diluted, with the policy now subject to agreement between employers and unions. Taiwan’s 2002 law allowed for a maximum of three days of menstrual leave per year, but those days were subtracted from existing sick leave, with employees receiving only half of their regular wage. It was amended in 2013 to make the three menstrual leave days in addition to basic sick pay. 

Zambia passed a law in 2017 that allows women to take one day of leave from work each month without having to produce a medical certificate or give a reason to their employer. It has colloquially become known as ‘Mother’s Day’, even though it applies to all women. 

Some of these laws have added fuel to the fire of those critical of menstrual leave. While many view it as progressive, the concept is certainly not without critics and has been described as a ‘lightning rod’ for feminists. 

Dr Sally King, founder of Menstrual-Matters.com, made this the subject of her PhD thesis at King’s College London: What counts as a premenstrual symptom? A Critical Realist Discourse Analysis of expert and patient descriptions of a highly contested diagnosis: PMS (Premenstrual Syndrome). 

An experienced voice in the field of period health, Dr King has major reservations about the adoption of menstrual leave.

“You might imagine that the kind of nation that endorses a menstrual leave policy must be super in-touch with the needs of women, in the workplace and beyond,” Dr King says. “And yet the countries where menstrual leave has been established, or debated at the national level, perform relatively poorly, even compared to their close neighbours, on measures of gender equality.

“Underneath this policy lie multiple myths about the female body and menstrual health. Sadly, such assumptions reinforce gender inequality… there is evidence to suggest that in menstrual leave countries, women are more likely to be positioned as inherently more expensive or unreliable workers who are likely to require more paid leave, even if not many women actually take it. 

“Whether or not a person is capable of doing a job is not usually dependent on their genitals, and so policies should not separate workers based solely on this difference.”

While Dr King recognizes that menstrual leave is usually “discussed and implemented with the best of intentions”, she suggests alternative approaches may be more effective. These include better menstrual health literacy, flexible working arrangements and more comprehensive sick leave. 

“Most people know very little about the nature, prevalence of, or effective treatment options for menstrual symptoms,” she explains. “This ignorance is not inevitable, and it wouldn’t take much to significantly improve our collective level of knowledge. 

“Ideally, all workers regardless of gender would be able to take short-term sick leave without it counting against them in any way. Menstrual symptoms are already covered by sick leave policies in the UK and this entirely avoids the issues caused by having a gender-specific benefit, such as menstrual leave, which can result in resentment of, and discrimination against, female employees.”

Dr King stresses that sex-specific policies of any kind risk creating an atmosphere of resentment, adding: “Global evaluations of employment policies from the past several decades have consistently shown that gender or sex-specific policies, no matter how good their intention, end up harming the very people they aim to help. 

“The trick is to identify the needs of women, and ideally other marginalised groups, and to design policies for all employees that take them into proper consideration. That way, the policy actually helps everyone and does not accidentally make colleagues or employers feel resentment.”

A global tipping point?

Despite the concerns of some academics like Dr King, the UAE’s menstrual leave pioneers appear to be part of growing movement towards it being standard practice for employers. Could menstrual leave become an employment right as enshrined as maternity leave in the UAE and further afield? Fine Hygienic Holding CEO Lafferty believes major change could be on its way. 

“To attract more women to your company and to retain that talent because the company shows empathy — you can’t put a price tag on that kind of impact. Yes the pessimist in me would say that the world is still falling behind in its approach to gender diversity but I do believe in tipping points; if something hits a certain critical mass, it suddenly falls like dominoes. 

“I think it’s possible that menstrual leave will cascade like a tidal wave and within a couple of years the vast majority of leading companies will offer a menstrual day. I am optimistic.”

Unilever HR Director El-hadad agrees that a shift in mindset seems imminent and is hopeful that more companies and countries will adopt the policy. 

“When we launched menstrual leave, a lot of people from developed countries like the US and UK were reaching out saying ‘wow, why can’t we have this benefit?’ and we have seen that our female employees have found it beneficial and have felt empowered,” El-hadad says. “If governments in particular continue to take it forward, it could become normalized sooner than you might think but we are still probably looking at 3-5 years before we break the norm if we are consistent.”

She said it is encouraging to see more brands addressing menstruation and femininity in general and cited the time Emaan Abass, founder of the luxury feminine wellness brand KETISHcome to speak at Unilever.

“Those who attended — male and female — were really engaged with the conversations,” she said. “The more we talk, the more it becomes normalized. 

I think we all have a role to play if we’re serious about gender diversity and making the world more equal. Menstrual leave is only one topic but it’s simple and I think those who don’t adopt will soon be behind the curve as an employer; they are not going to be able to attract the right talent if this isn’t part of their benefits.”

Mark Lomas

Mark is a Dubai-based writer who has couch-surfed through Ukraine, broken bread with football fans in Basra, and appeared on a boxing reality TV show in the UAE – all in pursuit of a good story. Or at least an average anecdote.

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