Are Menstrual Leaves Really Justified?
Menstruation in India is a silent struggle (Vepachedu, 2016). It is a natural biological process, but it is treated as a taboo throughout the country (Vepachedu, 2016; Chitra, 2017). For the past few decades, social activists, feminists, and academicians have been fighting against the social stigma, shame, and secrecy associated with menstruation while reckoning the lack of provision to health and sanitation in India.
In India, Menstrual leave discussions became crucial with the proposition of the Menstrual Benefits Bill, 2017 by MP of Arunachal Pradesh Ninong Ering in Parliament with an appeal to provide two days of menstrual leave every month to both public and private employees during menstruation (Manjunath, 2018). At the same time, two Mumbai based private companies, Gozoop and Culture Machine, came forward as one of the few companies in India to implement the policy of FOP (First day of period) leave for their employees. This generated widespread debate and polarised opinions, with one opposing the policy of period leave, stating them to be regressive, while the other accepting the policy to be progressive.
Before the private companies implemented the menstrual leave policy, Bihar Government introduced a menstrual leave policy for their female employees. It was as early as the 1990s when women of Bihar demanded and successfully fought the battle for period leave policy and were granted two days of leave every month during menstruation (Prasad, 2018).
Menstrual leave: Regressive or Progressive?
The Menstrual Benefit Bill, 2017, along with the introduction of FOP by the Mumbai based companies, were already able to set the platform for various social media debates, campaigns and movements on menstrual leave. Zomato, in the year 2020, introduced period leaves for their women and transgender employees, triggering the already existing debate surrounding the policy resulting in conflicting viewpoints.
Women, activists, and people not in favour of the policy had a plethora of differing arguments. One argument attached to the menstrual leave policy is that it came across as a discriminatory policy against men. The additional days off for women will set a biased environment against men within the workplace (Prasad, 2018). Another outlook attached to the policy is that it might make women deem weaker sex and undermine the theory of gender equality (Chitra, 2017; Santhanam, 2020). Many fear the plausibility of a lower hiring rate with Menstrual Leave policy implementation, similar to what women experienced with Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 (Latha et al., 2018; Chitra, 2017). According to Chitra (2017) from Times of India, several men and women working within corporate sectors oppose the policy, considering it discriminatory and regressive, explaining it to be “taking women back by centuries”.
Critiques and activists in opposition believe they don't see the need for a menstrual leave within urban corporate companies where women already have access to proper menstrual hygiene at the workplace, unlike unorganised rural sectors (Chitra, 2017). The corporate world claims employees may misuse the menstrual leave policy. Companies worry that the policy will negatively affect their productivity and increase absenteeism in the workplace (Latha et al., 2018; Santhanam, 2020).
Well-known personalities, such as journalist Barkha Dutt often use social media platforms and interviews addressing her concerns opposing the policy. She mentioned her opposition to the generalisation of the need for menstrual leave and suggested employees with menstrual disorders should apply for medical leave. According to her, the menstrual leave policy would result in the gendering of the workplace and would reduce the further opportunity for women (Santhanam, 2020). Proclaiming that she covered Kargil War (1999) on her periods, she asserts that the policy will hold back women within households blocking their entrance to restricted professions.
Contradicting the opinion of those against the menstrual leave policy, all in favour argue that it is high time every workplace should learn to become more inclusive of women' bodies, value employee satisfaction, and contribute to creating a healthy work environment (Latha et al., 2018). Women are biologically different from men, and while discussing period leave, the workplace should acknowledge the biological differences. The policy of period leave does not make women less equal to men. In fact, the period leave policy would help bring about equity in the workplace by encouraging acceptance towards women's bodies (Santhanam, 2020). Although most employees believe women are naturally capable of bearing the pain and discomfort of periods while functioning in the regular traditional work environment, the reality differs for women with menstrual disorders. They experience many more symptoms physically and psychologically (Prasad, 2018).