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Commentary: ‘Menstrual leave’ reinforces damaging stereotypes about women

The Italian Parliament is currently debating legislation that would require companies to offer women three days of paid “menstrual leave” each month. (Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images)

Italy’s latest proposal for government-mandated “menstrual leave” is the furthest thing from — as the Italian version of Marie Claire dubbed it — “a standard-bearer of progress and social sustainability.”

The Italian Parliament is currently discussing a measure that would require companies to offer female employees who experience painful periods three days of paid leave each month. Should Italy pass such a ridiculous law, it would become the first Western country to do so, joining nations like Japan and Indonesia.

The bill was presented March 13 by four lawmakers — all women — from the country’s ruling Democratic Party, and according to Rome’s Il Messaggero newspaper, it could be approved in the coming weeks.

While the temptation is to see this latest progressive mumbo jumbo as nothing more than fodder for good laughs, it’s important to realize that this — like so many other liberal policies — is not only nonsensical, but dangerous.

The hazard in mandated “menstrual leave” is that it further stigmatizes an issue by reinforcing wrong-headed thinking that modern, educated, and forward-thinking society has spent years trying to shed. In fact, the fight to break down the taboos surrounding menstruation are still ongoing.

In rural Uganda, for example, young teenage girls miss up to eight school days every month because they are on their periods. While much of that is due to a lack of bathroom access and sanitary products, a great deal of it is the result of stigmatization and bullying — making women seem dirty or incapable while they’re menstruating.

“I used to use cloths that I would cut from my old T-shirts to keep the blood from staining my dresses, but they were not enough and blood would still stain my clothes,” 16-year-old student Joan Anyango told the Guardian. “Boys used to laugh at me and I eventually simply stayed home whenever my periods started.”

Thanks to a local nongovernmental organization that visited her school, Anyango and her friends now use reusable menstrual pads.

“Now I don’t get ashamed or embarrassed when I get my periods,” she said. “I even attend classes during my periods and nobody notices.”

Charitable organizations, philanthropists, and other do-gooders around the world have invested greatly in efforts to normalize the menstrual cycle by educating people and teaching them to rise above the sexist stereotypes that so easily ensnare women. Now Italy wants to upend those efforts and send society backward — all in the name of “progress.”

As feminist writer Miriam Goi astutely observed in her piece for Vice Italy, the Italian proposal will “end up reinforcing stereotypes about women being more emotional during their periods.”

Goi is right. Whether or not it’s intentional, the very idea of “menstrual leave” signals that women in some way lose control of their ability to combat the pain and hormonal changes accompanying their natural cycle.

In response to the Italian proposal, lifestyle writer Nicole Lyn Pesce penned a column for Moneyish titled, “I’ll work through my period, thanks.”

“Women are not the weaker sex, but I’m afraid if we’re all given time off each month for our periods, we’ll be seen that way,” she wrote. “[W]e have battles to fight, and this period leave isn’t one of them.”

If all of this isn’t enough for my feminist-minded friends, look at it from a purely economic standpoint. If lawmakers want more women in the workforce, this is most certainly not the way to do it. If women are granted paid “menstrual leave,” Lorenza Pleuteri wrote in Italian women’s magazine Donna Moderna, “employers could become even more oriented to hire men rather than women.”

Furthermore, due to deeply entrenched stereotypes about women, females already struggle more to find work in Italy’s job market — which has one of the lowest rates of female participation in all of Europe — than in other developed countries. Only 61 percent of Italian women work, compared to the European average of 72 percent (it’s 71 percent in the United States).

Those low numbers are the result of employers’ hesitancy to hire women and keep them on staff after they become mothers. According to data collected by ISTAT, Italy’s national bureau of statistics, a surprising 1 in 4 women are suspiciously fired during or immediately after their pregnancies, despite the fact that doing so is illegal.

“It could be argued that, if women suddenly require several paid menstrual days a month, we are indeed a weaker sex and, moreover, that we are privileged over men,” the Independent Women’s Forum wrote in their statement on the matter.

I’m not a woman, but I have two sisters, a mother, aunts, female cousins, and friends, and I don’t want to see any of them shortchanged because some legislation implied they are lesser or lowered the market value of the work they bring to the table.

At the end of the day, this is nothing more than an attempt by a progressive government to reach its hands into the free market. It’s not an attempt to move women forward, and it should be swiftly rejected as such.

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