Menstrual leave: Where is South Africa?


With Spain recently announcing the adoption of menstrual leave, CHRO South Africa spoke to experts on the possibility of South Africa adopting a similar legal framework. 

A commonly understood definition of menstrual leave is a workplace policy that allows approved absence from work due to painful menstrual and/or menopausal symptoms.

Specialists in employment law from local firm Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr, Gillian Lumb and Leila Moosa, agree that even though the implementation of leave entitlements aligned with physiological fluxes such menstrual pains and menopause are progressive, employers will need to carefully determine various factors that are aligned with it. “Given the nature of the leave, employers must be both sensitive to and cautious around requirements for an employee to confirm menstruation or gender identity.”

In the South African context, said the specialists, employers may wish to consider inter alia a number of factors such as:

  • Who will be paying for the leave – is it paid, unpaid?
  • Who is entitled to menstrual leave?
  • How much leave will the said person be entitled to?
  • Issues around employee privacy and change management and allegations of unfair treatment from other employees.

The duo also cautioned that employers should guard against the possibility that menstrual leave may reinforce false and sexist positions relating to workplace productivity and people who take menstrual leave should not be prejudiced in terms of promotion and work opportunities due to an increase in time off from work.

According to gender and social activist Candice Chirwa, menstrual leave is important in the promotion of workplace equity and gender equality, as well as contributing to a culture that values and supports the health and wellbeing of all employees, regardless of gender.

“The introduction of menstrual leave would be welcomed as a progressive step for workplace accommodations as it acknowledges that menstruation can affect an individual’s ability to perform their work duties or attend school, and provides them with the option to take time off without fear of negative consequences such as loss of pay, disciplinary action, or stigma,” she notes.

Trends lean towards acceptance

Zambia was at the forefront of this trend becoming the first African country to implement such a policy in 2017. According to Zambian law, all women workers are entitled to a day’s menstrual leave each month, without need for a medical certificate or explanation to the employer.

On February 16, Spain became the first European country to adopt a menstrual leave bill, creating an opportunity for women across the nation to apply for sick leave if they suffer from medically approved incapacitating periods.

Similarly countries such as Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan, Vietnam and selected parts of India and China legally recognise menstrual leave in some form or another.

Candice says while the country is eagerly awaiting for the legislative wheels to start working, there are other things that all companies, big and small, can do to make the workplace better for their staff. Here are some of her tips:

  • Nobody should feel ashamed to tell their boss that they’re having a bad day due to menstrual issues.
  • Keep menstrual products on hand, just in case. Make them available without people having to request them, in places such as bathrooms. Provide sufficient disposal solutions in every bathroom.
  • Do not monitor bathroom breaks.
  • Do not make or allow jokes about premenstrual syndrome.

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