BUENOS AIRES, Argentina- Students at schools and universities in Argentina could be granted a day of period leave each month if a legal project presented earlier this month is approved.
The bill comes as Argentina’s leftist government pursues several policies to tackle the stigma and embarrassment associated with periods, and shortly after other progressive gender legislation including a public sector labor quota for transgender people and the historic legalization of abortion.
School and university students who menstruate would be allowed one day of period leave per calendar month, according to the proposal. Schools would be required to help them catch up with any classes and exams they miss due to taking period leave, and the policy would prevent diligent students who suffer from severe period pains or premenstrual syndrome (PMS) from clocking up too many unexplained days off.
“The state must guarantee conditions of equity and equal opportunities for accessing and remaining in educational establishments,” said Carmela Moreau, the cabinet advisor who presented the project alongside leftwing deputy Lucas Godoy.
The text of the bill says that the culture of hiding symptoms such as PMS and stomach cramps are a manifestation of patriarchal culture that treats male bodies as default. It points out that period pain can be debilitating and that a culture of soldiering through the pain can lead to delays in the diagnosis of serious health conditions such as endometriosis.
Almost half of respondents to a 2020 study by the Buenos Aires province human rights office said they had taken days off school or university during their period. Nearly a quarter (22.3 percent) said they had struggled to make it through the working day.
The bill also calls for schools and universities to teach students about periods, in order to “prevent and erradicate violence, prejudice and discrimination related to the menstrual cycle.”
The high cost of period products is a form of economic violence, according to Lucía Espiñeira, feminist economist and campaigner with the group Economía Femini(s)ta.
Espiñeira’s campaign, Menstruacción (Menstru-action), has calculated the cost of a “period basket,” similar to the food basket, to demonstrate the importance of affordable menstrual products. As of September 2020, having periods in Argentina cost 2,992 pesos a year (around $39) if you use sanitary towels and 3,925 ($51) per year if you use tampons.
“They’re essential, but they’re treated like luxury products,” she said. “There’s also the symbolic [violence] of, ‘Oh, she’s on her period, that’s why she’s pissed.’ The mockery and humiliation during adolescence.”
Moreau said during an Instagram Live event on February 9th that she had taken days off both school and work because of her periods. “I get really, really heavy bleeding and sometimes even when I use a tampon or a sanitary towel, it overflows,” she said. “It happened at work the other day and I was wearing a white suit!”
Although the bill won’t necessarily be adopted, it’s just one of several recent initiatives in Argentina to combat period stigma and inequality, an issue campaigners refer to as “menstrual justice.”
Last December, over a hundred politicians and activists attended a menstrual justice event in Argentina’s presidential palace to debate solutions to the problems people with periods face, such as cost, stigma, and access to education about menstruation. At the time, 19 different bills about free period products or sustainable period management had been presented in congress.
“Period management will be state policy,” said presidential advisor and feminist sociologist Dora Barrancos during the event, adding that “there’s no social justice without gender justice.”
In January, the security ministry distributed free menstrual cups to members of the airport security police as part of its new policy to provide free period products to its staff. The distribution was accompanied by a workshop on how to use the cups.
Conservative critics have said Argentina’s government shouldn’t prioritize periods while the country is being battered by a deep economic recession compounded by COVID-19. “I don’t want my tax money going to the Ministry of Menstruation. Empowered women have to fight for far more noble causes in a country that’s going through such a deep crisis,” conservative journalist Viviana Canosa objected in an op ed.
But campaigners argue that menstrual justice helps to combat poverty at a time when unemployment and precarious working conditions are hitting women especially hard.
Although it’s virtually nonexistent in Latin America, period leave isn’t a new idea: Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan and Indonesia have it written into their labour laws and Zambia allows all women to take a “mother’s day”. Some companies are adopting period leave policies in India, too.
Menstrual leave isn’t in Argentina’s labour laws, but the country’s banking sector has a “feminine day” written into its industrial agreement. There have been periodic debates elsewhere in South America: a Chilean congressional candidate proposed it in 2017 but it wasn’t implemented.
In theory, it offers blessed relief to those whose cramps leave them bent double once a month, but according to surveys in Japan and South Korea, most don’t actually take it. Some are too embarrassed to tell male supervisors that they’re on their periods, while others feel it could bolster harmful stereotypes about female weakness that put employers off hiring women.
What’s more, some countries require a doctor’s note or don’t require companies to pay for the days off. It’s not much help for those who work in the informal economy, either.
True menstrual justice will require broader reforms than simply handing out free menstrual cups or debating period leave, according to Espiñeira. She said that women living in slums and deprived neighborhoods often have to share bathrooms, making it awkward for them to use a menstrual cup. Moreau pointed out that in remote parts of the country, many women don’t have access to clean water, making cups all but impossible.
“It’s been a taboo, so we need to talk about menstruation without euphemisms,” Espiñeira said. “About the fact that monthly bleeding isn’t something to hide or deny, because it’s something that happens to part of the population every month.”