By Niharika Sharma from Ideal Institute of Management and Technology, GGSIPU
Let me start this article with a disclaimer: Those who feel even a tad bit uncomfortable of even saying the word “Periods” or “Menstruation” out in open, do not go further with this article because it might trigger you into reading and learning about the struggles a woman goes through in her lifetime, every single month.
India as a country has seen quite a few progressive/regressive changes in the recent past and hopefully the progressive list would increase in the coming days. However, there are certain issues that have always been a taboo in our country and one such issue is of Menstruation, more commonly called Periods, which makes it very difficult to have an open discussion about it as people seem to get extremely uncomfortable and prefer to discuss it behind closed doors. Not just men, but women, too, feel discomfited talking about it even today.
We are trained to not take period pain seriously because it is supposed to be “a part of being a woman”. This fight between women and periods is not something to have evolved in recent times–women are fighting this since the birth of mankind. Throughout this time, women have faced many difficulties dealing with the phenomenon of menstruation. They suffer alone every month during their menstrual cycles. It is so difficult to list every pain and suffering that women have to go through, including health problems and the way they are treated in the society while menstruating. Even after this, women being such courageous beings, do not use this as an excuse to get away with any sort of work, in most cases.
I feel a little relieved knowing that today the situation of women is not as wretched as it was, some decades ago. There have been many developments in terms of benefits provided or the treatment by society, and also the medical facilities available for them in the time today, keeping aside the fact that there are still some sections of the society that have the orthodox mindset and consider periods as a disease.
How the term ‘Menstrual Leave’ came into light?
In employment, menstrual leave is a policy that gives working women an option to take leave during their menstrual cycles. Viewed as a gender-specific policy, menstrual leave allows women who are unable to attend work because of menstrual cycle-related symptoms, paid leaves. Let us see how and when it came into the light!
A company in India offered “menstrual leave” to its female employees, offering them to take the first day of their periods off work for the first time in 2017. The company, Culture Machine, adopted its new policy, First Day of Period (FOP) Leave, and then started encouraging more companies around India to do the same. The company also started a petition on Change.org for the Ministry of Women and Child Development and the Ministry of Human Resource Development to implement the FOP Leave across India.
“It’s only right that we provide the women who work with us with a supportive work environment and considerate policies,” Culture Machine’s president of Human Resources, Devleena S. Majumdar, said.
Additionally, the company believed that the policy will allow women to be more productive after taking the day off rather than feeling uncomfortable and in pain during their first day of menstruation. They believed that the new policy would be a big step in a country where menstruation continues to be a taboo. Some parts of India and Nepal still practice “Chhaupadi”, a social tradition in which a menstruating woman must sleep outside of the house because she’s seen as “impure.” The practice not only leaves girls feeling humiliated and afraid, but also puts them in danger. Although FOP Leave does not solve the menstruation taboo, Culture Machine saw it as a necessary step toward addressing it and making the workplace a better environment for women. However, the policy received a “lukewarm response”, The Print reported that only 8% of women used their period leaves. Some of the employees told The Print that they were concerned about the backlash they can face since women who took maternity leave faced backlash in their work, as well.
The Menstruation Benefit Bill
Taking the condition of women’s menstrual health into account, the Menstruation Benefit Bill was tabled by former Lok Sabha MP Ninong Ering, representing Arunachal Pradesh, in 2018, encouraging a discussion on the need to introduce two days of paid menstrual leave for working women every month. The Menstruation Benefits Bill seeks to provide women working in the public and private sectors two days of paid menstrual leave every month, as well as better facilities for rest at the workplace during menstruation. The benefits would also be extended to female students of Class VIII and above in government recognized schools. However, the Bill was not considered to be path-breaking in any way as a girls’ school in Kerala has been granting its students menstrual leave since 1912 and Bihar has had special leave provision for women for two days since 1992, even though the state does not specifically mention menstruation as the reason for leave, women employees can avail a 2-day leave per month for biological reasons under ‘Special Casual Leave’.
More recently, it was the announcement of a 10-day period leave by Zomato that once again had people locking their horns over its benefits or lack thereof.
What are people debating about?
Indian food aggregator and delivery company. Zomato, said it was introducing period leave for its menstruating employees. “This will apply to women employees and transgender workers to build a more inclusive work culture in the organization,” Zomato Chief Executive Officer, Deepinder Goyal, said in a note to staff. “There shouldn’t be any shame or stigma attached to applying for a period leave. You should feel free to tell people on internal groups, or emails that you are on your period leave for the day.” He said that the decision was made in order to “foster a culture of trust, truth and acceptance”.
In a note for the male employees in the blog, Goyal said, “Our female colleagues expressing that they are on their period leave shouldn’t be uncomfortable for us…I know that menstrual cramps are very painful for a lot of women—and we have to support them through it if we want to build a truly collaborative culture at Zomato.”
Soon after the announcement, a debate broke on various social media channels regarding the efficacy of the move. In India, period leave has been a controversial topic since many people view it as being sexist. Many appreciated the move and hailed it as a “trendsetter”, given that several women face severe pain, heavy bleeding, headache, nausea, depression and sleeplessness during their menstrual cycle. Menstrual pain or Dysmenorrhea affects nearly half of the women in the working-age group, so a period leave is no less than a blessing for many such women. Some arguments, however, advocated against menstrual leaves, stating that women would be discriminated against by potential employers if they had the option to avail extra leaves.
Is period leave a good idea?
Many activists feel that menstrual leave should be a paid leave granted by law, like maternity leave. The support for period leave rests on a sound rights-based argument—that workplaces need to accommodate for biological differences between co-workers. Period leave allows women to rightfully rest during their menstrual cycle. It is well-documented that women experience a wide range of health complications during their monthly cycles. While the experience of a period is different for different women, and differs month-to-month for the same woman, period leave, to be taken if required, is thought to be a means to legitimize the physical toll of a painful monthly cycle and a means to create equity at the workplace. It is also cited as a way of normalizing conversations around menstruation.
According to gynecologist-turned activist, Dr. Surbhi, menstrual leaves would normalize periods, which still remain a taboo for many Indians. “Menstruation is a natural process but there are women who go through problems like dysmenorrhea and cramps during their periods. Such leaves would go a long way to ensure that workplaces become more gender-sensitive,” said Dr. Surbhi.
Against the move
Many people opposed the move saying how companies will have a “hiring-bias” where they will prefer men over women just so that they can save a few periods of leaves. In addition, these leaves might further propagate the stereotypical notion that menstruation makes women unfit for work. Some experts have also said that the spread of such policies despite their best intentions could actually deter women’s progress in the workplace. More so, women’s absences could push them out of decision-making roles and eliminate them from consideration for promotions. Others opined that some women might not be comfortable broadcasting to the entire office, which days of the month they have their period on. If menstrual leave is structured like maternity leave, it threatens to increase the cost of hiring women. This has implications in the long-run.
It is well-known that many employers in India are hesitant to hire women for jobs that require frequent travel as they need to make special arrangements for their safety. Paid period leave can further exacerbate this situation. Even if this by itself does not keep women out of jobs, it can lead to discrimination in hiring and promotion, and raise more barriers for women to enter and climb the corporate ladder. It also creates grounds for companies to offer lower in-hand salaries to women.
Let’s examine another assertion–normalizing conversation around menstruation. Gender specialist and menstrual health educator, Mayuri Bhattacharjee notes, “Period leave does nothing to reduce the biases and taboos around menstruation.” The explicit term “period leave” creates a demarcation, rather than allowing it to be a type of sick leave, thereby allowing a judgment to be passed on the severity of the “sickness” or, as many women experience in domestic spaces, legitimate complaints getting passed off as a symptom of the “Premenstrual Syndrome”.
Most women would agree that they have often been ridiculed by a male colleague, insinuating or asking if their “unpleasant behaviour” is a result of PMS (premenstrual syndrome). Research has shown that women’s physiological changes—from menstruation to pregnancy—often tend to invite gender biases in their professional spaces, making them compromise on their employment opportunities.
With menstruation still a taboo in India, millions of women and girls in India face discrimination and health issues due to a lack of awareness surrounding the matter. The key is to ensure that women have space to seek leave such that it does not reinforce discrimination against them.
In the interim, we can also experiment with other middle-path solutions. The pandemic has demonstrated the potential of remote working to many employers. In industries where remote working has proven to be effective, employers can be encouraged to institute work-from-home policies that allow employees to work remotely for a fixed number of days in a month. This flexibility will ensure that women can work from the comfort of their home, in case they find it inconvenient to travel or work from office during their periods.
While the intentions of those campaigning for menstrual leave are laudable, we must be cognizant of the unintended consequences that may arise from such a policy. No amount of safeguards in this will be able to guard against the ex-ante discrimination against women other than some stringent and effective laws.
Under Article 42, which is found in Part IV of the Indian Constitution dealing with the Directive Principles of State Policy, the state is mandated to “make provision for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity relief.” Under Article 15, although there is a bar on discrimination only on grounds of sex, Clause 3 of the Article authorizes the state to pass laws making any special provision for women. Thus, the passage of a law by Parliament recognizing the right to menstrual leave will not only be constitutional, but a fulfillment of the State’s obligation under the Constitution.
In a country where the word ‘menstruation’ is met with raised eyebrows and disgust, proposing for a ‘Menstrual Leave’ policy will be difficult, but nevertheless a much needed change in the right direction.