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How menstrual leave and period poverty awareness can boost reproductive health

Spain might join several countries offering menstrual leave. NJ has a bill that will offer it to students and others boosting reproductive health.
Young Wiman Holding Tampon
Period poverty occurs when a person can’t afford period products, such as pads, tampons or menstrual cups.Megan Madden / Refinery29 via Getty Images

Sometimes one's period feels disruptive. It might come with heavy bleeding, nausea, cramping and intense fatigue. Others might not experience such extreme symptoms, but still feel tired or a little off when menstruating. If they live in Spain, they might be able to take time off work as legislators are expected to pass a bill that gives people three days menstrual leave each month, according to the BBC.

“It’s a wonderful concept because first and foremost it elevates menstruation in the public mind,” Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, an OB-GYN and author of “Let’s Talk about Down There: An OB-GYN Answers all Your Burning Questions … Without Making You Feel Embarrassed for Asking,” told TODAY. “In society (menstruating) is something that happens to about half the population and it’s something that’s worthwhile (to discuss) — not to push under the rug or say, ‘It’s your time of the month just deal with it.’”

People who experience endometriosis, fibroids, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and bleeding disorders often experience intense pain and disruption during their period, making working and daily tasks difficult. Others experience premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), which is a more severe version of premenstrual syndrome. PMDD can include extreme cramping, breast tenderness, irritability, GI upset and anxiety and depression, according to Johns Hopkins. Menstrual leave gives people the grace to tend to their health as they grapple with agonizing symptoms.

“For some people when they get their periods they are not able to function at their full capacity. Right now many of them are being told to work through it,” Lincoln said. “It shouldn’t be that way. If they’re needing to take days off from work our school that should be a sign that they should seek health care.”

Encouraging people to push through their symptoms and pain can mean some don’t seek help and start to believe that pain and excessive bleeding are normal.

“If we’re able to change the narrative we can help people feel empowered to not live this way,” Lincoln said. “When it comes to menstrual leave that’s a really great way to say that for half the population that menstruates that they deserve to be taken care of.”

Too often people don’t realize that pain or heavy bleeding could mean that there are other health problems.

“We have normalized that periods are supposed to be painful and you’re supposed to be moody and so we send the message — especially to young people who are just starting out — that this is your life now. Just deal with it,” Lincoln said. “By giving leave I don’t think (it's) going to start a pandemic of menstruators calling in sick every day for a week. I don’t think this is some lazy, easy way out. But it will actually empower them.”

If someone needs to take three or more days off work because of their period or PMS that’s useful information they can share with their doctors that would encourage them to look for potential causes of such disruptions.

“I think it would change the conversation in this country about periods and what’s OK and what’s not,” she said.

The status of menstrual leave

If Spain passes its bill, it will join a rather small group of other countries that offer menstrual leave, which includes Japan, South Korea and Zambia, according to CNBC. Some businesses, such as the Indian company Zomato, offer menstrual leave. In the United States, New Jersey state lawmakers introduced a bill that would allow high school students to have excused absences for their periods.

“Those of us who are working on these issues in the assembly do really want to focus not only on the health impacts, but also the social impacts to make sure that children, young girls, women, our entire community is educated on menstruation and menstrual health,” New Jersey Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer, who represents District 16, told TODAY. “These various issues that women face in their lives, in their health, impacts everything around them, including the economics.”

While one proposed bill will allow students menstrual leave, Jaffer and her colleagues introduced other legislation to help combat period poverty, which occurs when a person can’t afford period products, such as pads, tampons or menstrual cups. The proposed bill would allow people receiving Medicaid and SNAP to use those programs to purchase products while another bill will raise awareness about period poverty, according to NJ Spotlight News.

According to the nonprofit Period Equity, New Jersey is one of 24 states that have a “tampon tax,” which is a sales tax on menstrual products. Some states don’t have a sales tax, meaning no products are taxed, while other states axed their tax on menstrual products. But even purchasing the supplies every month can be expensive.

“People just simply aren’t able to afford the products that they need,” Jaffer said.

Another proposed bill would devote funds to screening and raising awareness for conditions, such as endometriosis, fibroids and PCOS. This could have a big impact on people in New Jersey.

“There’s very disparate funding when it comes to reproductive health,” Lincoln said. “When you talk about things like endometriosis and fibroids — one in 10 people have endometriosis and depending on your race up to 80% of people can have fibroids. This affects huge populations and if people want to think in terms of money, these issues make people lose work. They lead to mental health disorders. They lead to issues with fertility.”

Lincoln said that funding research into reproductive health now can be an economic boost later.

“All of these programs will eventually pay for themselves when you think of how much money we lose in the economy from issues like period disorders and period poverty,” she said.

Jaffer said women only make up 35% of the state legislature so sometimes reproductive health has been overlooked.  

“That means that a lot of times women’s issues haven’t necessarily been the focus,” she said. “Women’s health in general is a priority for me.”  

For Jaffer, she hopes that if this legislation passes it will offer hope to New Jersey residents.  

“It’s important to center the experiences of women and their health concerns that for too long, they’ve been neglected both in research and policy and culture,” Jaffer said. “I’m really proud to be working with (my colleagues) and to bring these issues of women’s health out of the shadows because these are things that we’re going to have to deal with and we want to make sure they get the support they need.”