For most American women beyond the age of high school gym class, "I've got my period" isn't considered much of an excuse for anything. We're meant to pop an Advil and get on with things, Red Devil be damned. But in several, mostly East Asian, countries, so-called "menstrual leave" is a legally enshrined right for female workers.
However, as these countries attempt to move toward greater gender equality in the workplace, menstrual leave has come under debate. Do these policies simply further the notion that women are weak, hormonally-addled creatures controlled by their uteri? Or do they encourage more equality by accommodating female workers' biological demands, much as maternity leave does?
The issue turns out to be surprisingly complicated, with complex historical roots and supporters on both sides of the liberal-conservative divide.
Japan has had menstrual leave since just after World War II. According to the 1947 Labor Standards Law, any women suffering from painful periods or whose job might exacerbate period pain are allowed seirikyuuka (literally "physiological leave"). At the time the law was written, women were entering the workforce in record numbers, and workplaces like factories, mines and bus stations had little by way of sanitary facilities.
The new law, writes researcher Alice J. Dan, was "a symbol for women's emancipation. It represented their ability to speak openly about their bodies, and to gain social recognition for their role as workers."
The number of women actually taking their menstrual leave has plummeted over the latter half of the 20th century, but female workers have been reluctant to give it up entirely.
Taiwan's current menstrual leave legislation is much newer. The 2013 amendment to the country's Act of Gender Equality in Employment guarantees female workers three days of menstrual leave a year, in addition to the 30 days of half-paid sick leave allotted to all workers. The act originally folded menstrual leave into the regular 30 days of sick leave, prompting a gender-diverse coalition of politicians to claim this was a violation of women's basic rights. (Imagine, say, Barbara Boxer and Mitch McConnell banding together to support a woman's right to period days.)
Indonesian women are entitled to take two days a month of menstrual leave, though many companies simply ignore the law, and others have even been accused of forcing women to drop trou and "prove" their need for time off. This month, a delegation of female workers pressed presidential candidates about workplace discrimination, including menstrual leave abuses.
South Korean workers were granted menstrual leave in 2001, though an experiment in extending the policy to female university students was deemed a failure ("faculty members decided that the policy was being abused as an excuse for absence"). The policy has lately come under fire from Korean "men's rights activists," who, despite Korea's heavily male-dominated work culture, see it as a form of reverse discrimination.
These Asian menstrual leave policies appear to be based on the scientifically dubious notion that women who don't rest during their menses will have difficulty in childbirth later. Some say the laws are therefore more about treating women as future baby-vessels than valued employees.
Then there's Russia.
Last year, a Russian lawmaker proposed a draft law that would give female workers two days off a month. His reasoning:
During that period (of menstruation), most women experience psychological and physiological discomfort. The pain for the fair sex is often so intense that it is necessary to call an ambulance … Strong pain induces heightened fatigue, reduces memory and work-competence and leads to colorful expressions of emotional discomfort.
Unsurprisingly, the bill was condemned by Russian feminists and, politically speaking, went nowhere.
But even in countries with well-intentioned menstrual leave policies, many women don't feel comfortable taking it. They're understandably embarrassed to tell their superiors they have their period, and they worry they'll be viewed as weak for taking time off.
The fact is, menstruation is not debilitating for most women. But for up to 20 percent of women, period pain interferes with daily activities just as surely as a nasty cold or flu. Ample paid sick leave would seem to take care of the problem just as well without forcing women to share their lunar cycles with their bosses. It's no coincidence that several of the countries with menstrual leave also have lackluster sick leave policies—neither Japan nor Korea mandate paid sick leave for non-serious illness.
But then again, neither does the United States. Perhaps we should start agitating for the Boxer-McConnell American Menstrual Leave Act after all?