Women have dealt with menstruation since time immemorial — but supporting them through period pains during their studies remains a tabooed and unresolved issue. Despite being among the world’s first countries to implement menstrual leave for secondary school students and workers, universities have yet found an efficient way to support students with period pain.
Female workers in Korea were first guaranteed menstrual leave in 1997. Article 71(now 73) of the Korean Labor Standards Act entitled them to leave one day a month at their request. Korea is one of the few countries in the world to grant such leave, along with Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan and some states in China.
However, the idea of menstrual leave has always been a hot topic for debate. While Korean female workers have the right to menstrual leave for the last 10 years, many universities have tried and scrapped such policies overtime.
Even countries with high recognition of human rights do not grant menstrual leave. While some praise such moves, others fear they may lead employers to discriminate against women when hiring, or further the notion that women are hormonal and weak.
Menstrual leave for students first came into action in 2005, when the National Human Rights Commission of Korea recommended similar measures for middle and high school students. By 2006, most secondary schools had policies allowing female students on their period to go home without penalty. Many universities then considered similar moves. However, the decision was met with backlash from students.
“I understand why the policy was made, but we can’t stop students from misusing it,” then-high school student Kim Bu-mi told The Hankyoreh in 2005. “Consulting our male homeroom teacher can be really awkward, so most girls don’t use the leave anyway. Even if we go to the nurse’s office, all we get are painkillers. Can’t the school provide us with a more fundamental solution than an approved absence?”
Such problems remain unresolved a decade later. According to statistics released this March by Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, 4,111 students were recorded absent if they left school due to period pain last year, and only 7 percent of all students used their menstrual leave. In coed schools, the number decreased to 4.6 percent.
“When my friend asked for a leave, my teacher said she had to show her pad to the school nurse to confirm that she was on her period. When she heard that, she decided to stay at school,” one student told Hankook Daily in March. “Even though our school has policies for girls, I don’t think it works for us.”
Only a handful of Korean universities continue to offer menstrual leave, a s m a n y terminated the policy following student complaints. Of Seoul’s six women’s universities, only three — Sungshin, Duksung, and Dongduk — maintain menstrual leave policies.
“We do not officially approve leave due to menstruation because of concern that it might hinder the autonomy and quality of university classes,” an Ewha university administrator told News One. “It is up to the professor to (decide whether to) accept menstrual absence as sickness absence.”
Ewha’s policy requires a written diagnosis from the head of a general hospital for any sick leave. Without this, each absence from class results in a point’s deduction from a student’s final grade, and six absences result in an F. Under these circumstances, period pains are unlikely to be accepted as reasons for an official sick leave.
Some professors are known to have taken informal measures such as providing students two free absences, or accepting as means of aiding sick or busy students.
“Every policy has its own risks of being abused. Clearly, menstrual leave is not an exception— but this cannot be an excuse to ignore students’ pain.” said Nam In-cheon, a student at Dankook University. “Universities have to think of a way to assist students suffering from menstrual pain.”