It’s a pain she’s had to endure each month since she had her first period at age 13.
When we meet in Starbucks in downtown Beijing on a cheerless, sub-zero winter day, the 24-year-old theater director is looking pale and has four heat pads stuck to her waist to ease the breath-taking cramps.
Shao Jinwen has suffered from acute menstrual cramps since age 13.
“I just want to cut that part of my body off completely,” she says.
However, Shao is hopeful Chinese regulations that grant leave to female workers for severe period pain in some provinces will eventually be extended to Beijing.
Shao says legal recognition of the pain that she suffers every month would mark a step towards “taking menstruation seriously as a women’s health issue.”
When cramps enter the public debate
On Sunday, Anhui province introduced new regulations allowing female workers who suffer severe menstrual pain to take one to two days off every month, after presenting a doctor’s certificate.
Menstrual leave is already provided in Shanxi and Hubei provinces. And a consultation period to introduce the measure in the southern province of Guandong ended on December 3. There’s no word yet on when or if it will be passed.
It’s not the first time that paid menstrual leave has been debated in China, and other territories in the region, including Japan, Indonesia and South Korea and Taiwan, already have laws guaranteeing women days off during their periods.
It’s a right unheard of in most Western countries, but more and more high-profile women are drawing attention to the problem.
Lena Dunham, creator of the hit HBO series Girls, recently opened up about her struggles of living and working with endometriosis — a painful and little-known disease associated with menstruation, where a tissue lining the uterus grows outside of it — in an essay entitled “The Sickest Girl.”
Meanwhile, tech entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox criticized the Apple Health Kit app for not tracking periods when it was first launched. Later updates included the function.
Research suggests that globally, one in 10 women suffer from menstrual cramps (known medically as dysmenorrhea) so crippling that they could interfere with their daily activities. A quarter of women, on the other hand, are blessed with painless periods.
Asian countries lead the way
Since 1947, women in Japan have been granted menstrual leave and in South Korea, female workers have been entitled to a day off each month since 2001, but few employees in male-dominated workplaces are eager to exercise that right, according to the Korea Times.
In 2014, Taiwan amended its legislation to grant female workers up to one day of menstrual leave a month and three of these qualify for half pay.
Women in Indonesia are given a monthly two-day menstruation leave by law. However, workers rarely take up this right because companies perform physical examinations on women before granting the leave.
Who needs paid period leave in China?
Li Sipan, a woman’s rights advocate in Guangzhou where the draft regulation is being considered, told CNN that paid period leave is a right that women enduring acute menstrual pain ought to have, but she thinks the regulation is neither detailed enough nor realistically enforceable.
Those who would potentially benefit most from the regulation, according to Li, are female migrant workers behind assembly lines and sweeping the streets, who make up for the majority of such lines of work.
But things may look different in practice.
“For migrant workers, a doctor’s notice would be too much of a hassle to get,” Li said.
The current draft regulation does not specify what types of jobs would qualify employees for these holidays besides “women stationed to their posts for extended periods of time.”
Nor does it outline the possible consequences for companies ignoring the law.
Li, who has covered issues surrounding female labor extensively as a journalist, said she isn’t optimistic the regulation would be well executed even if it was worded more specifically.
“Female employers might worry they wouldn’t be hired because of the extra time off. So I’d suggest the regulation not target a specific gender, but women with specific jobs.”
Will it work?
Lowina Tse, a gynecologist and a director of Hong Kong Women Doctors Association, told CNN efforts to legislate around periods should be part of a move for better labor health protection.
Just as maternity leave can be phrased as family leave, cramps should be treated as a general health issue.
“Some women may have menstrual cramps, and others may have other chronic conditions such as irritable bowels, migraines, or asthma attacks every now and then.”
Ultimately, in Tse’s view, it is more constructive to get a check up and treat the underlying condition, although access to quality healthcare may be a privilege few have.