Srijani Roy - Associate, Gender Equality Program
Picture Credit: Entrackr
The current pandemic has caused a nationwide lockdown in India for months at a stretch now. People are only allowed to step outside their houses either to buy groceries or in case of emergency. News channels are constantly showing how the coronavirus is taking away the lives of thousands of people. News about deaths have become a common phenomena in our lives. Under such circumstances, Zomato India, a food delivery app in India, has launched a menstrual leave policy for its female and transgender employees. While the move has been applauded by many, it has also met with severe criticisms from several corners of the country as well. Before delving into the intricacies of whether we need a menstrual leave policy or not , it is important to understand the current conundrum of menstrual health and hygiene practices in India.
Currently, India has a female population of 48.04% in comparison to 51. 96% male population. According to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index 2020, India ranks 112th out of 153 countries in providing equal opportunities to women and men . According to this Index, women often don’t have the same access to healthcare and education as their male counterparts. In such a scenario, can a menstrual leave be introduced?
India has a 355 million menstruating population. Menstruation and related problems are issues that every female and also transgenders have to deal with. The religious and cultural taboos associated with menstruation, pose as barriers at the individual level in seeking knowledge and skills for its effective management. Menstruation is in fact such a stigmatized topic in society, that even mothers refrain from talking about it with their daughters. This vicious cycle of not talking about menstruation has led to young girls and people in general being unaware of what menstruation is, until they begin menstruating. Many girls and women often gather information about menstruation, and menstrual health and hygiene related practices from unreliable sources and as a result they actually do not know the intrenches of what menstruation is. In The Taboo of Menstruation, author Rose George states how women are discriminated against for simply menstruating. Period poverty, leads to several young girls dropping out of schools every year, not only in India but worldwide. The problem of excluding boys in menstrual education further leads to menstruation being a stigmatized concept in society. A specific leave, known as the “menstrual leave” if implemented properly in India, could help not only in reducing the number of young girls dropping out of schools due to period poverty but also help in normalizing menstruation to a great extent.
Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea, Zambia and Japan have one thing in common: a menstrual leave policy. A menstrual leave refers to a paid or unpaid leave that is given to a woman and transgender people by her workplace during her menstrual cycle every month. The duration of the leave is usually one or two days in a month.
In India, menstrual health is often a neglected issue compared to other struggles faced by a woman. Though it is not well known, in India- the state of Bihar has been offering a two-day menstrual leave per month since 1992. In Bihar, women can decide which two days of the month they wish to take off from their workplace and they need not provide any justification to their employer.
A big step that had been taken toward establishing a menstrual leave policy all over India was taken when in 2017, Ninong Ering, a Congress Member of the Parliament from Arunachal Pradesh, had moved a private member bill called “ The Menstruation Benefit Bill” . According to this Bill, women working in private and public sectors get two days of menstrual leave every month. The Bill has the provision of providing better facilities to women in their workplaces. However, the bill is yet to be passed by the parliament.
Why do we need a Menstrual Leave Policy?
In 2016, John Guillebad, explained that period pain can be “bad as having a heart attack.” Everyone’s period is a different experience. For many people menstruating is not a pain free experience . Several people also suffer from menstruation related disorders. Many people who menstruate experience some form of physical or emotional discomfort, popularly known as premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Apart from PMS, many women also experience dysmenorrhea. Dysmenorrhea or period cramps refer to cramps and pelvic pain that occur during menstruation. It often interferes with daily activities of women. Moreover, many women also suffer from menstrual health related disorders such as polycystic ovarian syndrome ( PCOS) and endometriosis which unfortunately have been ignored. Since these concerns around women’s menstrual health have often been brushed aside, several women have been forced to apply for “sick leave” when they are experiencing their menstrual cycle. Several women are forced to take pain killers and silently endure the discomfort and continue working. A menstrual leave would ensure that women are not forced to take “sick leave”- menstruation is not a disease. A separate leave, called the menstrual leave would help in breaking the taboo around menstruation by allowing the non- menstruating population to acknowledge the fact that people menstruate and they are on a menstrual leave not a sick leave.
Feminist anthropologist, Emily Martin, had identified a pattern of how menstruation affect’s women’s productivity at work. A menstrual leave could ensure that women during her menstrual cycle can work from home and thus be more productive. Also, most offices are not equipped with facilities for menstruating women, let alone for transgender. Offices do not have facilities such as proper resting facilities including comfortable chairs, sanitary napkin vending machines and proper disposal facilities.
Picture Credit: Press Trust of India
For women working in white collar jobs earning a good salary, access to sanitary products and water in both their homes and their workplaces seldom is a problem. However, for women working in blue collar jobs the situation is totally different. Usually women working in brick kilns, construction sites often don’t have access to a proper washroom and managing their menstrual cycle in such conditions is a painful experience. Even if there's a washroom near a construction site, around 20-30 women are using it. It is not clean and water is usually not available. In such a case if there is a paid menstrual leave, these women would be benefited greatly. It is not that they will stop working in their household during their menstrual cycle but at least they can be exempted from heavy duty work. There are also women who are working as domestic workers and no household provides them with menstrual leave. A menstrual leave could also benefit them- domestic workers already do not have laws for them, at least a leave would benefit them in a small manner.
Not only the menstruating population needs a menstrual leave but also women going through the phase of menopause. During the time of menopause, women experience several bodily changes and a menstrual leave could ensure that her body receives an adequate amount of time to rest.
It is not that only women menstruate. Trans men and non-binary people also menstruate. Trans women don’t experience menstruation but they experience PMS like symptoms. Few companies have started employing transgender employees and a menstrual leave would be of great aid to them. Transgender employees already face the problem of not having gender neutral washrooms. To add to their woes, there is a lack of availability of menstrual health and hygiene products for transgenders and non-binary people. If they can avail a paid menstrual leave, it would at least help them perform better in their workplaces. It would also make people aware about the fact, that it is not that only women bleed and apart from women transgender and non-binary people also need a menstrual leave.
The Arguments Against Menstrual Leave Policy
Many women have argued against a menstrual leave because it might lead to further bias in hiring women for different types of jobs. Women have fought endless battles and are still fighting to be considered equal in their workplaces. A leave policy, specifically designed for women could re-establish the same notion that women and men are not equal. Many employers also state that it could affect the work performance. The reason being that if an employee is absent every month for two or three days how will the employee complete the tasks assigned to her.
Also in most white collar jobs women are already provided with maternity leave, sick leave, casual leaves. An additional menstrual leave will only create a deeper gender divide in workplaces rather than making it more inclusive and equal. Not all people experience debilitating pain during their menstrual cycles and thus this leave could be misused by many people. Some employers have already justified their stance against menstrual leave by saying that several companies already provide their employees with sick leave, casual leave. They feel it is an unnecessary step .
Another point argued against a menstrual policy is that it could reinforce orthodox thinking. Menstruation is already a taboo in society, and several women are segregated every month during their menstrual cycle. According to Beverly Strassmann, “ Menstrual taboos are so widespread, they’re almost a cultural universal.” Critics argued that a menstrual policy could also reiterate the same belief- women need to be segregated during their menstrual cycle.
Companies nowadays have started to become conscious towards having a gender balance and menstrual leave won’t change anything. On the hand, some others have argued saying that even though a menstrual leave policy could be implemented in the organized sector, it would be difficult implementing it in the unorganized sector. The reason simply being that, if a woman working as a worker in a construction site desires a paid menstrual leave which by law , the employer is forced to give, the employer would definitely want someone else to do the job.
Few companies in India such as Mumbai based media firms. Culture machine and Goozop had started giving menstrual leave to its female employees. In 2019, a Kolkata based firm , FlyMyBiz, started providing its employees with menstrual leave.
In August 2020, Zomato, joined the list of companies providing a menstrual leave to its employees, for a period of up-to 10 days a year. What is noteworthy is that Zomato has taken into account that it is not only women who menstruate but also non-binary men and transgenders. Such a move shows us that we as a society can make attempts to become more inclusive. This move has been applauded by several activists as well as and has sparked a debate among several people, regarding the need for a period leave. Zomato has shown people that if we really want to change our circumstances, we need to act upon it.
Menstruation is not something new. In fact if we look closely, menstruation is closely ingrained with several cultures. In Assam, the Kamakhya temple is closed annually as it is considered that the resident deity of the temple bleeds. In Southern parts of India, girls when they begin menstruating for the first time, they are given gifts and it is celebrated. On the other hand, we also have the Sabarimala Temple which did not allow women of menstruating age to enter the temple, because they are considered impure. This notion of women being impure stems from the deep rooted belief that menstrual blood is impure. Centuries back, women had to do several household chores even during their menstrual cycle. Since women experience menstrual cramps , excessive bleeding and discomfort during their menstrual cycles the practice of segregating women during their menstrual cycle was started- the sole purpose being to provide some relief to women during their menstrual cycle. Lack of sanitary napkins forced women to use clothes, rags and even leaves during their menstrual cycles which hindered their movement. However, even after centuries these deep rooted traditional beliefs are acting as impediments towards woman’s road to success.
Menstruation is a natural bodily function, it is nothing to be ashamed of and asking for a menstrual leave should be as normal as asking for a vacation. Hence, a menstrual leave should definitely be implemented by workplaces . Paid menstrual leave is not a luxury for women. Paid menstrual leave if adopted in the organized, will not only benefit women and transgenders working in the organized sector but the benefits can slowly percolate to women and transgenders in the unorganized sector. Above all, it will give a person who is menstruating the right to dignity. One need not feel guilty for menstruating.
Several countries have made huge strides in breaking the taboo around menstruation . Scotland earlier this year had passed a bill to make sanitary pads and tampons free across the country. In June this year, Jacinda Arden, Prime Minister of New Zealand, in an attempt to tackle period poverty, made all sanitary products free for all school going girls. Stigma and taboo around menstruation continue to persist and a menstrual leave policy if adopted across the world, especially India where majority of women still use rags and leaves during their menstrual cycle could be a major step towards de-stigmatizing the very concept of menstruation.
Angellica Aribam, founder of Femme First Foundation, a non-profit organization promoting women’s political leadership in India said that women may protest against a menstrual leave, similar to when there were protests against the maternity leave, but in future, it will be considered basic and normal.
Yet, one must also keep in mind that a menstrual leave policy won’t solve all our problems. Not only should a menstrual leave policy be effectively designed and it needs to be properly implemented both in the organized and unorganized sector. Period poverty should also be effectively tackled. Above awareness should be spread about menstruation and menstruation related issues. Both the Government and the NGOs should engage in an equal partnership to ensure that the stigma around menstruation is broken. So maybe, the next time you see your local dispensary wrapping a black polythene around a packet of sanitary napkins, for a change you can say- No. One small step will go a long way and maybe who knows our future generations can live in such a society where menstruating is as normal as sneezing.
Srijani Roy is currently pursuing her Master’s in Sociology from Jadavpur University. She wears multiple hats . She is an Associate under the Gender Equality program and also the Head of Outreach at C.R.R.S.S. Currently she is also heading a magazine, “Unspoken” which will be launched by C.R.R.S.S. soon. She is passionate about studying Gender Equality, Human Rights, Child Rights. When not working you will find her catching over her lost sleep.