Menstrual Leave: Boon or Bane
This Blog is written by Himanshi Sharma from Delhi Metropolitan Education, GGSIPU, Noida. Edited by Pranoy Singhla.
India has seen a lot of progressive changes in the recent past, however, despite almost half of the population undergoing menstruation, including our mothers and sisters, it has always been a taboo and our knowledge about it is quite low. We always have chosen to ignore to speak of menstruation or its products. Such taboos about menstruation present in many societies have a huge impact on women’s emotional state, mentality, and lifestyle, and most importantly, their health. Women are embarrassed, ashamed, and even afraid of their period, the so-called ‘monthly’.
Menstruation is nothing but a normal biological phenomenon yet had always been surrounded by myths that exclude women from many aspects of socio-cultural life. The adolescent girls and women should understand that they have the power of procreation only because of this virtue. Menstruation is not a process to be tolerated but a gift to be grateful for. Even at a medical store, we are given pads wrapped in a newspaper then black polythene as if we are buying drugs. The ‘black polythene’ has become so synonymous with the sanitary napkin that everyone already knows what’s inside it, then why all of that effort? Many girls and women are subject to restrictions in their daily lives simply because they are menstruating. During the period of 5 days, every month, the majority of women in our country are made to sit outside their homes in isolation, sleep separately in a small corner as well as there is a restriction on them to enter the kitchen and offer prayers as well as touching the holy books. The cliché here is that on one hand you are trying to hide it with the ‘so-called norms’ and on the other hand you make it so evident that everyone gets aware of the fact that a woman is menstruating.
Even the apex court of the country in Sabrimala Temple case has lifted a centuries-old ban on women who could potentially be on their periods from entering the temple. Then why these restrictions? It is further believed that menstruating women are unhygienic and unclean and hence the food they prepare or handle can get contaminated. In some cultures, women bury their cloths used during menstruation to prevent them from being used by evil spirits. Interestingly, in Asia including India, such beliefs are still practised. However, there seems to be no logical or scientific explanation for this. Maintaining one’s hygiene is the most important task to lead a healthy life, and this takes centre stage during menstruation.
NEED FOR MENSTRUAL LEAVE POLICY IN INDIA
The Menstruation Benefit Bill tabled by Ninong Ering, Member of Parliament in Lok Sabha representing Arunachal Pradesh in 2018, triggered a widespread discussion on the need to have menstrual leave policy for working women whereby they will be provided two days of paid menstrual leave every month as well as better facilities for rest at the workplace during menstruation. Countries like Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and Taiwan have been providing the female employees with paid menstrual leave dating back to World War II.
In India, companies like Culture Machine, Gozoop, Thomson Reuters Foundation are offering their female employees a day off on the first day of their periods as well. With its positives, however, there are negatives attached to the bill such as hiring bias, lesser pays, and slower promotions, among others. The ones not in favour of this bill argue that they will have to undergo humiliation and shame to prove that they are on their periods. This mindset needs to be changed. Why should women undergo embarrassment for their biological framework? For successful implementation of this policy, flexible options such as work from home shall be provided to take time off for periods. It should be left upon a woman to choose whether she wishes to take leave or not. Therefore, we need to transform our workplaces to be inclusive and sensitive to the needs of all employees. In a country where the word menstruation is met with raised eyebrows and disgust, proposing for a ‘Menstrual Leave’ policy will be difficult nevertheless, a much-needed change in the right direction.
PIL IN DELHI HIGH COURT SEEKING PAID MENSTRUAL LEAVE FOR WOMEN STAFF
A PIL has been moved before Delhi High Court seeking directions to the Centre and Delhi Government to accord paid leaves for all women staff during their menstruation phase. The matter was scheduled to be heard on November 23. The bench included Chief Justice D N Patel and Justice Prateek Jalan. The Pil was moved by Delhi Labour Union through advocate Rajiv Aggarwal. The petition was put forward for Delhi and Centre Government to grant four days paid leaves for all women of all classes including daily wage, contractual and outsourced workers. The petition also sought the directions to pay overtime allowance to the menstruating women employees if they choose to work during their periods.
BOON OR BANE?
In August 2020, Zomato announced a new paid menstrual leave policy for its employees, 35% of whom are women. While this is not the first time that a company is announcing such a policy, it has triggered a sharp debate among women themselves on whether this is a progressive move, mere tokenism, or a regressive move. A twitter storm erupted recently after journalist Barkha Dutt criticized food delivery startup, Zomato, for introducing ‘period leaves’ for its women and transgender employees. Dutt wrote on the microblogging site, “Sorry Zomato, as woke as your decision on #PeriodLeave is, this is exactly what ghettoizes women and strengthens biological determinism. We cannot want to join the infantry, report war, fly fighter jets, go into space, want no exceptionalism, and want period leave. PLEASE.”
Dutt isn’t the only one who thinks that period leave would result in ‘ghettoizing women’, causing employers to discriminate against them, or not hire them at all. In 2013, when a Russian lawmaker, Mikhail Degtyaryov, a member of the nationalist LDPR party, asked the parliament to give female employees two days’ paid leave each month during their menstruation cycle, human rights groups, as well as women groups, were quick to condemn it for the same reason. A similar situation arose in Italy in 2017 when a bill was proposed in the parliament in favor of menstrual leave, and many (including women) opposed it, claiming that it would hurt women’s job prospects in the long run, and hence it should not be made into a law.
However, the argument that period leave should not be given because it results in increased discrimination against the same group for whose benefit it is being proposed is not just inherently flawed, but also extremely wrong.
Firstly, if corporate companies which are largely headed by men, don’t hire women employees because they have period leaves, then the problem obviously is the corporate companies (men in their management position) who choose to discriminate on the basis of gender and not a policy that is aimed at protecting the interests of women. Therefore, what is required is to ensure that better policies are framed so that such discrimination does not happen; it is surely not to do away with period leave altogether which actually does help many women.
NOT JUST A CORPORATE POLICY BUT A LEGAL RIGHT
According to a survey conducted in 2017 with the aid of using Women’s fertility and fitness tracker, Maya, nearly sixty eight percentage of Indian women have intense menstruation related signs and symptoms along with cramps, tiredness, and bloating. For such girls, duration leaves may be a boon. In fact, duration leaves should not simply be the privilege that girls in white-collar jobs can access, and it is miles vital that women from rural sectors, low-earnings families also are given this benefit.
Media reports claimed that in Maharashtra, thousands of women laborers have surgically removed their wombs just so that they can get work during the harvest season in sugarcane fields. In a garment factory in Tamil Nadu, women were given unprescribed, unnamed drugs when they complained of period pains, which not only cause depression and anxiety in many, but also resulted in urinary tract infections, fibroids, and even miscarriages. It is imperative that such women can also access period leave, therefore, mere corporate policies formed on a company to company basis, with no standardized law won’t be sufficient for our country and what is required is a strong labor law that helps in incorporating period leaves, while reducing the scope of discrimination.
Of course, the naysayers will argue that if such a law is passed, then the discrimination will start at the entry-level itself, and men will be picked over women because they would work for more days each year. However, that discrimination can also be curbed if policymakers can incentivize corporates, private firms, small scale industries, farm owners to hire women for work by giving them tax cuts, or other benefits. If period leave has to be effectively incorporated, then it would be best if the push came from the government and policymakers. In the state of Bihar, for instance, it already exists. Two days every month has been given out to women government employees since the year 1992 as period leave.
In India, in fact, period leave is an old practice. According to a book published by the state-run Kerala Sahitya Akademi in 1988, titled Kerala in the 19th Century, authored by historian P Bhaskaranunni, the Principal of The Government Girls School in Tripunithura, (located in the erstwhile Cochin) had requested the school management to grant women teachers, and students leave during their menstrual cycle because they mostly skipped school during those days anyway.
THE NEED TO DESTIGMATIZE PERIODS
Japan has perhaps had the provision of period leave for the longest time. It was initially incorporated after World War II when women entered the workforce in large numbers, but over the years, lesser women have been availing it.
According to a report in The Guardian, women who want to take leave due to their period pain just apply for regular leave instead of menstrual leave in order to avoid ’embarrassment’. They do not want to let their male colleagues know that they have their periods, because they worry that it might lead to teasing or sexual harassment, and more often than not, they do not want to be ‘perceived as weak’ by taking such leaves. These are common problems that women are likely to face if period leave is incorporated in India as well. In fact, the degree may be amplified because until now, the topic of menstruation itself was considered a social taboo in our country. Therefore, there is a need to destigmatize period in workspaces, and to take women’s pain seriously, instead of trivializing it, which happens quite often.
Another thing that has to be understood by employers is that productivity or output is not tied to the number of hours an individual spends in office. A female worker can be far more productive after a day of rest during her periods rather than when she is holding her stomach and grimacing in pain, and watching the clock waiting for her work hours to end. Likewise, that female worker can also be equally as productive on the whole as another male worker who doesn’t get period leave.
PERIODS AREN’T JUST WOMEN’S PROBLEM
What Dutt so conveniently forgot in her argument is that it isn’t just women who experience periods. Several Trans-men also experience them and for many of them, it is a painful experience. Therefore, period leave isn’t just a woman rights issue, an LGBTQ issue, and above all, it is a human rights issue, that includes a larger cross-section of society (apart from the 49.6 percent of the world population who are women) and many among this cross-section need this kind of leave, therefore, it isn’t a proposition one should dismiss within 280 characters of Twitter.
Had the women trade unionists, lobbyists, and activists backed down from asking for paid maternity leave in 1919, stating that women would face discrimination at the workplace if they took leave before and after their pregnancy, then we would never have the rights for paid maternity leave. Of course, our workspaces which are deeply patriarchal doesn’t change overnight, and every woman who has set foot in an office in the last 101 years will tell you, that women still face discrimination for their maternity leaves in some way or another, but that doesn’t mean that we have failed to normalize maternity leaves in this past century.