Let’s Talk Periods: Why India Needs a Menstrual Leave Policy

Rather than isolate and ghettoize women, a menstrual leave policy has the potential to sensitize and educate men at the workplace, thus, helping them become better allies, and make workplaces more gender-inclusive.

Let’s Talk Periods: Why India Needs a Menstrual Leave Policy

  Picture Courtesy: CNN

Food delivery company Zomato recently announced its decision to introduce period leave of up to 10 day per year for its employees (women and transgender persons), as part of an effort to combat the stigma around the issue, and build a “collaborative culture” at the company. This has triggered widespread discussion on the issue. While many have appreciated it, some, including renowned columnist and reporter Barkha Dutt condemned the move, saying, “…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.” She further said that the idea of a period leave “turns a normal biological experience into some sort of monumental event, gendering us at the workplace when we have fought so hard to not be gendered.” Personally speaking, I reject this argument.

To start, it is important to acknowledge that different women have different experiences with the menstrual cycle. For instance, many women face sleeplessness, nausea, headache, depression and fluctuations in hormonal levels. According to a study done in 2017 by Women’s fertility and health tracker, Maya, almost 68 percent of Indian women have severe period-related symptoms such as cramps, tiredness, and bloating. Some also suffer from endometriosis and dysmenorrhea which may take years to diagnose. Apart from the general symptoms accompanying menstruation, endometriosis may cause chronic pain, sometimes for six to seven hours at a stretch, excessive bleeding (requiring one to change six to seven XXXL sanitary napkins within two hours), nausea, low hemoglobin, and numb feet. In fact, in 2016, John Guillebaud, professor of reproductive health at University College London, explained that period pain can be as bad as having a heart attack”. For trans and gender-nonconforming people, periods are especially painful. Thus, while for many women, a hot water bag and painkillers may be sufficient to reduce the pain, not all women have it this easy. Importantly, as Sharanya Gopinathan suggests, even if they do, they shouldn’t have to mandatorily be their most productive selves while bleeding from the vagina. After all, how many medicines can they really pop? And why should they have to choose to pop pills to deal with menstrual cramps rather than rest it out?

In fact, the conversation around period leave can (as it should) lead us to finally think about homemakers and house helps who have to perform household chores despite crippling period cramps. Worse, they aren’t even entitled to sick leaves. Social conditioning facilitated by patriarchy has made women comfortable around not communicating and addressing their pain and working diligently despite it. Normalizing the conversation around periods and educating men at home about menstruation and its impact would enable them to be more sensitive and helpful, thus making women’s lives easier.

In the present circumstances, women who need a day off while on their periods can, at the most, take a medical leave. However, merging medical leaves with menstrual leaves is problematic because it blurs the otherwise clear difference between an illness/disease and menstruation, a natural, inevitable biological function occurring every month. Moreover, erasing the scope for discussion on how the menstrual cycle impacts women breeds a culture where men are completely oblivious to women’s distinct and diverse experiences, and consequently, fail to empathize with them. Rather than isolate and ghettoize women (as Dutt and several others argue), a menstrual leave policy has the potential to sensitize and educate men at the workplace, thus, helping them become better allies, and make workplaces more gender-inclusive. Additionally, accommodating period leaves for women and non-men can go a long way in destigmatizing and normalizing the conversation around menstruation.

In a 2017 article, in the Washington Post, Barkha Dutt argued that period leave is a paternalistic idea to further ghettoize women. Stating that while periods can be uncomfortable and painful, “this reality usually demands no more than a Tylenol or Meftal and, if needed, a hot-water bottle”, she expressed worry that granting period leaves would only further reaffirm the idea of biological determinism associated with women. Further, drawing a comparison between rural areas characterized by social stigma and lack of menstrual hygiene and elite, urban spaces where “spoiled women” were demanding the right to stay at home, she found the idea of period leaves ironic. Thus, Dutt suggests that period leave is nothing but a barrier in the fight for gender equality.

This brings us to the larger question: what is equality? Equality is the creation of a level-playing field where all genders are entitled to equal opportunities. However, encouraging women to make headway into a generally male-dominated workspace pretending that biological differences and women-specific constraints don’t exist will not guarantee a level-playing field, accommodating and accounting for women’s distinct needs will. A clear understanding of ‘different but equal’ is important here. Biological differences between men and women exist and rather than seek to deny these differences, feminism aims at creating spaces where these differences do not translate into grounds for discrimination against women. I must add that Dutt’s argument that period leaves would result in a hiring bias, lesser pay and slower promotions is not entirely unfounded. As Gloria Steinem wrote in her essay, ‘If Men Could Menstruate’, “Whatever a superior group has will be used to justify its superiority, and whatever an inferior group has will be used to justify its plight. Black men were given poorly paid jobs because they were said to be stronger than white men, while all women were relegated to poorly paid jobs because they were said to be weaker. …Logic has nothing to do with oppression.” It is widely known that companies in India, by and large, are apprehensive of hiring women within the reproductive age bracket owing to the possibility of them availing of maternity leave. In fact, patriarchy is so internalized and the stigma attached to menstruation so normalized, that in 2014, 45 women in a Kochi factory were forcefully strip searched by female supervisors to identify who left a used sanitary napkin in the washroom. So, period leaves furthering the bias against women at the workplace would be hardly surprising. But this is exactly the mindset we need to fight. Most workplaces are designed to fit the needs of men and are hostile to women’s needs. Thus, the goal should be to create equitable workplaces by dismantling the patriarchal-capitalistic framework that facilitates such bias in a competitive labour market, instead of demanding that women fit into this flawed framework. It is of utmost necessity to mainstream women’s experiences and tailor workplaces to suit their needs. Expecting women to grit their teeth through the pain and continue to work, cook and look presentable as if periods don’t happen denies and diminishes their experiences. Further, this is equivalent to pandering to capitalism and subscribing to norms set by men. The idea that women are equal to men only if they can work “like” men, completely ignoring the fact that men don’t bear the burden of crippling biological processes, performing household chores, looking after the family and raising children like women do is deeply problematic.

Moreover, Dutt’s use of the phrase “elite and spoiled women” is not only condescending but also problematic for implying that there is no room for simultaneous battles. It is true that a conversation around menstrual leave cannot happen without first acknowledging our own privilege in the discourse. However, the fight for menstrual hygiene in rural areas can co-exist with the demand for period leave. We must push for proper toilet facilities, clean, safe and private facilities for women and safer and more sustainable sanitary products (over 77% of menstruating girls and women in India use an old cloth) in places that lack such facilities, for instance, rural areas, and especially, for homeless and incarcerated women, and at the same time, advocate for menstrual leave so that women and trans persons don’t have to worry about being held back by their bodies. In fact, this should encourage us to extend the benefit of period leaves to women from low-income households and rural sectors as well given the dire need for provisions like this. In Maharashtra, thousands of women laborers have surgically removed their wombs in order to be able to get work during the harvest season in sugarcane fields. In a garment factory in Tamil Nadu, when women complained of period pain, they were administered unprescribed, unnamed drugs, which resulted in urinary tract infections, fibroids, and even miscarriages. That the rural sectors require our urgent attention with respect to these matters cannot be denied, however, let this not become a reason to shame and belittle the pain of others.

A very good example of how menstrual leaves can benefit women and enhance their productivity is the ‘special casual leave’ in Bihar. Women employees in the Bihar government have been eligible for two days of leave every month since 1992. The human resource guidelines of the Bihar government state as follows: “All women staff is eligible to avail two days of special leave every month because of biological reason. This is in addition to all the other eligible leaves.” As conversations with women employees in Bihar by members of the Bihar State Non-Gazetted Employees’ Federation revealed women’s need for a menstrual leave every month, it was included as one of the key demands of the employees’ strike in the 1990s. The then CM of Bihar Lalu Prasad Yadav agreed to the demand and an order to this effect was passed. Further, discussions of the general secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association in Bihar with women employees in several districts of the state about their experience in availing of this leave showed that women employees faced no problems in routinely availing of this leave, and that they did so either at the beginning of their cycle or prior to it, without the requirement of justifying the same.

From a legal perspective, article 15(3) of the Constitution of India empowers the state to make special provisions for women and children which is an exception to the general rule laid down in article 15(1). In Government of Andhra Pradesh v. P B Vijayakumar (1995), the Supreme Court laid down that “‘special provision for women’ in Article 15(3) means the provisions which the state may make to improve women’s participation in all activities under the supervision and control of the of the state, can be in the form of either affirmative action or reservation.” This is akin to granting reservations to women in politics and educational institutions so as to enhance their representation in these fields and is in sync with the idea of corrective justice. Thus, the menstrual leave policy, like the Maternity Benefit Act (1961), cannot be said to be violative of Article 15 (1).

Workplaces currently are heavily gendered and sexism in companies is an open secret. Therefore, there is a need, now more than ever, to restructure workplaces by centering women’s experiences, and period leave is a step in this direction. If anything, it will only make the world slightly more equitable for women.

Shreya Mohapatra is a final year student of law at National Law Institute University, Bhopal.