A variant of the headline question was put to Professor Kholisani Solo of the University of Botswana when he participated in a panel discussion during the recent labour conference that was organised by the Institute for Labour and Employment Studies.
Before Solo got a chance to respond, a male voice was heard to ask from the floor:“Ke ehe eo?” [Which one is that?]
Indeed, most Batswana, including women who are part of the labour force, are completely clueless about an unusual species of labour right called menstrual leave. In terms of such leave, female workers who suffer from severe period pain are legally entitled to a statutorily specified number of leave days a month.
Having seemingly misheard the question, Prof. Solo – who has served a stint as a High Court judge – launched into an explanation of the legal character of maternity leave in Botswana. The moderator let him finish but then repeated the question.
“Men?” asked Solo of the moderator in solicitation of repetition of the entire term that he didn’t seem to be familiar with.
On finally getting question loud and clear, Solo responded by saying that “I have no answer to that.”
The UB professor may not have had an answer but some are already asking the question of whether time has come for Botswana to also introduce menstrual leave. If it does, it would join the short list of countries that have done so: Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, France, Spain, India and Zambia.
Chatapiwa Mabutho, who is the Secretary for Gender Affairs in the Botswana Sectors of Educators Trade Union, says that while her union hasn’t begun to talk about menstrual leave, it is an issue that her office is well aware of. In lamenting the current workplace situation, Mabutho says that women are expected to work even when they are experiencing severe menstrual pain that also adversely affects them psychologically and emotionally.
“Some women fall really sick from the pain but there is societal tendency to assume that they are just faking the gravity of the pain they feel,” she adds.
It is common knowledge that some workers abuse sick leave and in countries where menstrual leave has been introduced, employers have complained that some female workers also abuse it. In Spain, which introduced this leave this year, trade unions were opposed to it upon reasoning that it could lead to a situation where employers favour male over female workers because the former won’t get additional leave entitlement.
It is reasonable to assume that similar concerns would be raised in Botswana when debate on this issue starts in earnest. In response to the first point, Mabutho counter-argues that “everything, including normal sick leave, is always open to abuse” and that confirming that a worker is genuinely sick is always difficult on account of the confidentiality involved.
“Some people even get doctors to write them bogus sick notes,” she says.
As regards the possibility of employers preferring male to female workers, Mabutho’s view that the latter might actually be judicious in their use of this provision because anything else might compromise their job security and career progression. To that end, she adds that there would have to be “very strict monitoring” to ensure that the interests of the parties concerned are not compromised. On the whole, Mabutho feels that menstrual leave, which is referred to as “Mother’s Day in Zambia, would be “a welcome development.” Zambia is the only African country to have introduced menstrual leave.
Cheludo Butale, the Publicity Secretary of Emang Basadi Women’s Association, says that her Association continues to monitor current global issues and debate on menstrual leave as well as the relationships between women’s bodies, gender equity, gender difference and women workers’ rights.
“We continue to raise awareness on women’s rights issues that include reproductive health issues through lobbying, advocacy, capacity building and engagement with relevant stakeholders. Menstruation is one of the issues that is not clearly stated or mentioned in law and public policy in Botswana,” says Butale adding that the challenge in Botswana is that gender equality in various laws or policies is normally understood in terms of equal participation in the labour market by both women and men. “Gender differences between women and men and other disadvantaged groups are rarely taken into consideration and male-dominated institutions tend to overlook such issues. Organisational cultures and norms are normally designed in ways that are orientated towards the male norm, with menstruation and gynaecological health issues affecting women ignored.”
Her organisation takes the view that while menstruation may co-exist with other medical conditions, “many women’s normal experience of menstruation in the workplace should be recognised and accommodated by society.” With regard to the latter, she says that various measures have been discussed globally on addressing menstrual health in the workplace and allowing employee flexibility. Such measures include working from home, staying in the workplace under comfortable circumstances – like resting in a quiet area, and taking a day’s paid leave.
Butale says that given the existence of diverse menstrual leave policies across the globe, Emang Basadi’s position is that the issue should be explored further to see what policies can be adopted in Botswana and that the country should follow standards set by the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in order to understand the different needs of women and men with regard to reproductive health.
Botswana has both signed and ratified CEDAW but as Butale points out, there is need to domesticate it through the enactment of a gender equality law that shall focus on issues of reproductive health rights – which include menstrual health issues.
“The Botswana constitution needs to be reviewed to introduce a stand-alone section on women’s rights, which reinforces the provision on non-discrimination based on gender and states the key areas for policy and legal measures aiming at accelerating the elimination of discrimination against women and promoting gender equality.”
One aspect of this issue is cultural because menstrual health hardly ever features unproblematically in everyday conversation. Butale says that discussing this issue is important as it destigmatises and normalises conversations about menstruation.
“Period shame and silence is a serious issue that raises human rights concerns and exacerbates gender discrimination, exclusion, violence, poverty and untreated health problems.”
As regards replication of Spain-like situation (trade unions fearing that the introduction of menstrual leave might reduce the rate of women participation in the national labour force) Butale points out that “there is need for a nuanced understanding of menstruation and gender inequality, which considers that not all women will experience the same kinds or degrees of inequality by reason of their menstruation.”
She further proposes that when the time to design initiatives that address inequality related to menstruation and menstrual policies comes, among those participating in the process should be civil society organisations, relevant government institutions and all affected groups.
“Menstruation is a multifaceted problem, requiring the right laws and legal responses to achieve reproductive and social justice,” she says.