Author: Leah Pattem. Photo: Aldara Zarraoa
The Spanish government has approved a new bill on reproductive rights. As well as providing safer and more discreet access to abortion and better support around pregnancy, birth and parenting, it is the clause on menstrual health that has captured the world’s attention.
The bill proposes that people who suffer from painful or unmanageable periods will be entitled to unlimited menstrual leave per month. Those suffering must visit to the doctor each month for consultation – either during or after their period – and, if the doctor is satisfied that time off is needed, state-funded sick pay will be granted.
There is already a system in place for if you’re unable to work due to painful periods, but what the new menstrual leave bill does is ensure that this time off does not eat into a worker’s annual sick leave, which is the same for men and women. Menstruating people will now be able to take time off work and not worry that other illnesses will mean being left without sick pay.
One sector that this law may acutely affect is care work, where 96% of workers are women. Carmen Diego, the spokesperson for the Platform of United Assistants (SAD) believes that the new law “is a very important step forward, since medicine does not take the gender factor into account enough. Endometriosis is a disease that incapacitates us a lot, and it’s time to take this problem seriously.”
The sector in which Carmen works is, in her opinion, “sufficiently prepared to manage the changes the new law will bring. If [menstruation] affected men, there would be no controversy, in addition to [the law] having been legislated years ago.” When I ask her about how this affects the future of medicine, Carmen believes there is room for improvement: “Gender should be taken into account and symptoms of illnesses should not be measured from the male perspective.”
Medicine is dominated by the study of white, male, western bodies, which have long been seen as the most perfect human specimen – any others have been seen as a deviation. For as long as medicine has existed, women and people of colour have been excluded from medical research, resulting in healthcare systems made by white men for white men.
Medicine has always seen women first and foremost as reproductive bodies. The female reproductive organs are seen as the greatest source of difference to men and resulted in the creation of gynaecology departments. But, while this department claims to focus on all functions and diseases specific to women and girls, the main focus still remains on the reproductive system and therefore does not typically take into account other differences between female and male bodies.
“Angina pectoris (chest pain) or heart attacks do not manifest the same in a woman and a man,” says Carmen. “We should also look into why the socio-sanitary sector has more cases of anxiety and depression and what factors cause these illnesses to occur, such as working conditions and salaries.”
To some extent, gynaecology departments have shifted the responsibility when it comes the medical study of female bodies as a whole, ticking a box while simultaneously deleting it. But the new menstrual leave bill has the potential to refocus our attention on women’s health.
Data varies widely, but up to 40% of the entire population in Spain could suffer from period pain – and up to 10% of the country experiences severe period pain. With a huge portion of Spain’s workforce being granted unlimited menstrual sick leave, the country must now stop and think of its future. There are two directions in which we can move: either stop hiring women and remove us from the country’s workforce – something I fear is not an unrealistic option for the right – or invest in the medical research into female bodies and make us a healthier, happier workforce.
Feminising medicine must also push for the decolonisation of medicine. A large portion of Spain’s care workers are immigrant women with non-white ethnic backgrounds, who experience double discrimination within Spain’s medical healthcare system. Understanding how our bodies work should not be debated, it should be a basic human right. And there’s one argument I think we can all get behind: if we are a stronger society, we are a stronger economy.
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