“I’m a feminist,” confesses Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. And he is convinced that feminism constructs “juster societies”. The 50-year-old socialist, who, with 14 women in the cabinet, heads the most female government in Europe, has been fighting for a continuous strengthening of women’s rights and equality since taking office four years ago.
Now the Prime Minister, with his progressive coalition of social-democrat-oriented Socialists and the left-wing alternative party Podemos, is planning another feminist reform that is unique in Europe: Spaniards are to be expressly granted the right to take sick leave because of menstrual problems, including continued payment of wages by the state.
“Spain will take a step that will be observed by all countries,” says Ángela Rodríguez, Secretary of State for Gender Equality. It’s a big step because it breaks a taboo in Spain, which is traditionally still quite conservative.
“Menstrual bleeding does not exist at work,” writes journalist Nuria Labari in the newspaper “El País”. In many men’s minds, advertising images of menstruating women with happy faces “jumping around like gazelles” dominated.
But the reality is different for many women, with sometimes hellish ailments that painkillers don’t consistently help. And where some of those affected can hardly sit, let alone work.
Spain’s Equal Opportunities Minister Irene Montero (Podemos) believes that this is unworthy. The 34-year-old minister and mother of three is at the forefront of the fight for the new right to sick leave. “It can no longer be normal that we go to work in pain,” she says. “We will do away with the feeling of shame and the silence about the menstrual period.” By anchoring the right to paid time off, she wants to encourage women to ask the doctor for a certificate in an emergency.
Her initiative is part of a bill dealing with women’s “reproductive and sexual health”. This includes a further liberalization of abortion rights. Abortion is legal in Spain up to 14 weeks of pregnancy. Now minors from the age of 16 should also be able to terminate an unwanted pregnancy without the consent of their parents. In addition, access to abortion in public hospitals is to be guaranteed, so far the women have mostly been sent to private clinics.
At the same time, Montero wants to ensure that sanitary pads and tampons, which are not cheap, become more affordable by reducing or even eliminating VAT – a long-standing demand of the women’s movement. Schools are soon to give these hygiene items to adolescents free of charge.
The draft law is to be passed in the cabinet this Tuesday. But not everyone in the cabinet is happy with it. Above all, the menstrual initiative raises doubts. For example, with the non-party Economics Minister Nadia Calviño. She worries that the proposal could be counterproductive. Because women could be stigmatized as the weaker sex and discriminated against when looking for a job. Spain’s large trade union UGT argues similarly.
Tangible criticism meanwhile comes from the conservative opposition camp. There, the possibility of sick leave is derogatorily referred to as monthly “menstrual leave”.
An interpretation that has little to do with what the law provides. There are no plans for a general exemption for bleeding disorders. Rather, those affected should be given security who suffer from such severe pain that they are unable to work for a day or even several days. According to gynecologists, this could apply to ten to 15 percent of all women of reproductive age.
In a pilot project in the two Spanish towns of Girona and Castellón, where municipal employees are already being offered time off, very few have taken advantage of it so far. However, this municipal experiment differs from the planned menstrual law in one decisive point: the absences are not compensated in these two pioneer cities, but the hours not worked have to be made up on other days.