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We need to talk about periods

Why the university must break the silence on painful periods and introduce time off for suffering female students

Both outside the bubble – with the Oscar-winning, taboo-smashing Indian documentary, ‘Period. End of Sentence’ – and on the inside – with the ‘Free the Period’ campaign that’s taken Cambridge by storm – ‘period’ is a word that seems to be on everyone’s lips at the moment. Despite this, the idea of a ‘period policy’ at university, which would allow students to miss classes, skip supervisions and hand in work late on one or two days of the month, seems like a very distant (if dreamy) prospect.

In fact, such a policy is already in place in many parts of the world, like Japan and Korea, and in some global companies, such as Nike.
To anyone who’s ever suffered from the kind of uterus-gripping period pain that over-the-counter painkillers simply can’t stop (as about 20 per cent of women do) the introduction of a menstrual policy at university would be ideal. Feminists and medical researchers alike have said that a period policy would already be established across the world if men themselves were to suffer from period pains. Interestingly, recent discoveries about how women are routinely prescribed weaker painkillers than men for the same levels of pain indicates that this might in fact be true. Clearly, the issue of period policies is one that is deeply embroiled in centuries of patriarchal belittlement of female pain.

There are, however, some problems that a menstrual policy might give rise to. Anxieties around women abusing a period policy and taking time off when they don’t need to prevents many companies from endorsing the policy. Period policies also seem potentially problematic when viewed with a global perspective. The idea that Western women are battling to take time off for their periods, when many women around the world without access to sanitary products or painkillers would do anything to be able to continue working during their periods, might seem problematic.

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Women in Meru, Kenya, being introduced to the menstrual cup. SuSanA Secretariat [CC BY 2.0 (]

Clearly, a middle ground needs to be found. Ultimately period pain is just like any other pain. If it is so severe as to affect work, it is necessary that students feel able to excuse themselves from their studies without feeling embarrassed or guilty. In my view a period policy at university would help to break the taboo surrounding periods and give female students who suffer badly from pain the confidence to get the time off work that they need. For a period policy to work effectively we would all need to treat the policy with honesty, only using it when really necessary. The introduction of the policy would need to strike a balance between bringing the new right of female students to their attention, without implying that you should use the policy without a real need. No pain, no gain. Such a balanced but firm policy is necessary in order to stop students who experience painful, disruptive and heavy periods feeling unable to cope with work and fearful of asking for time off. We must end menstrual silence on this issue now.