Spain recently approved a draft bill that grants women suffering from severe period pain (or dysmenorrhea) menstrual leave, but the draft law still has to pass through the country’s Parliament.
The proposed law would introduce at least 3 days’ sick pay each month for women who suffer from severe period pains, according to daily newspaper El Pais and other media which have seen the draft bill reported.
This then sparked a question of whether Malaysia should follow suit in adopting a menstrual leave policy?
While some say it would be a progressive development to enhance women’s health rights in the workplace, others believe that it could be detrimental to women’s employment.
How menstrual pain affects women?
Speaking to NST, Professor Emeritus Datuk Dr Nik Nasri Ismail of the Obstetrics and Gynaecology department, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia explained that primary dysmenorrhea can be normal and tolerable pain and this is caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the body such as prostaglandins (a chemical that makes the uterus contract or tighten up).
This is different from secondary dysmenorrhea, which is due to disorders in the reproductive system such as endometriosis, adenomyosis, fibroids, pelvic infections, pelvic adhesions, and cervical stenosis (narrowing of the lower part of the uterus).
“In some women, the cramps can be severe causing social and physical disturbances, thus limiting activity. It can be very annoying,” he said.
Meanwhile, studies showed that up to 95% of women worldwide experience painful periods. In Malaysia, the most recent published research on dysmenorrhea and working women came from YouGov in 2017 where 86% of women said they had period pain, and among those women who had period pain and had worked, 81% said that it affected their ability to work.
President of the Obstetrical and Gynaecological Society of Malaysia, Dr Hoo Mei Lin pointed out how the awareness about period pains remains woefully low.
“Menstrual pain is often unappreciated and unrecognised. Many women are told that it is normal to have menstrual pain and as such, do not seek treatment. Pain is not normal.”
“It is estimated that it can take up to ten years for a woman to be diagnosed with endometriosis despite numerous presentations to doctors.”
“Most of us experience some form of pain or discomfort during our menses. Because it is common, it becomes normalised and so, if a woman complains of period pain, it is often downplayed and this can lead to stigmatisation,” she said.
At present, women employees in Malaysia who experience acute menstrual pain could visit a doctor for treatment and sick leave will be granted on a case-by-case basis.
“Menstrual leave is not offered in Malaysia. Women employees may, at her discretion apply for paid or unpaid sick leave during menstruation,” said Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) president Datuk Dr Syed Hussain Syed Husman.
Syed Hussain said the current practice should be continued instead of making menstrual leave compulsory as not all women experience period pain.
“Menstruation is a normal occurrence for females at a certain age while they are still fertile. It is part of normal female life.”
“It is also clear that in some rare cases they experience severe pain. The medical fraternity has provided medication for these patients.”
“At the same time, many employers at the advice of the doctors treat this as medical leave. This has worked well all these years. Menstruation that happens every month cannot be treated as an illness or serious medical problem that is linked to normal leave.” he said.
Meanwhile, Syed Hussain also argued that menstrual leave could cast women as less able than men and could lead to further discrimination against female employees in the workplace, potentially threatening their employment.
Thus, he said Malaysia should not adopt a policy for special menstrual leave.
“Menstrual leave may be seen as a sign of weakness. It will worsen the stereotypes women currently face at the workplace that female employees are too emotional, unreliable or expensive for employers. All of these may make employers less likely to hire women.” he said.
On the other hand, Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) president Mohd Effendy Abdul Ghani suggested that menstrual leave should be given separately and not included in the sick leave as a whole.
“As opposed to other sick leaves where we can avoid illnesses through regular health care and nutrition, menstrual cramps to some women occur monthly,” he said, adding that women might exhaust their eligible sick leave.
He is also optimistic about the implementation and said the move has a positive impact on the part of employees and employers, besides discussing if this should be a paid or unpaid leave.
“If this implementation requires policy changes in terms of employment legislation, then an effective tripartite discussion between stakeholders, the government, MTUC and MEF needs to be held,” Effendy added.
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