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).
The common misconception that taking a day off during menstruation may result in unproductivity can be dealt with by synchronising work with the menstrual cycles by breaking the shame and introducing work flexibility at different times of the month (Vepachedu, 2016, p. 2). According to Vepachedu (2016), “Menstrual cycle awareness helps both men and women become more understanding and productive at work”. An organisation must pull off maximum potential out of its employees by balancing between productivity and their wellbeing (Chitra, 2017).
The idea of menstrual leave as discriminating in nature for male employees at the workplace has been opposed by several activists. Kavita Krishnan stated it is a biological stereotype and unfair to compare a menstruating body with a non-menstruator. She opposed the idea of extending sick leaves for every male and female employee to include menstrual leave within sick leave adding, menstruation is a natural process and not an illness. Therefore, granting leave for period pain or discomfort on sick leave does not make any sense (Santhanam, 2020). It may only raise the existing stereotypes and stigma associated with menstruation. According to Prasad (2018), while the naysayers "argue against the need for period policy, the problem with these arguments is that they perpetuate age-old biases and do little to take the discourse forward in a constructive and balanced manner”.
Moreover, the argument posed regarding women misusing their menstrual leave resulting in increased absenteeism is confronted by activists saying similar can be done by men and women under increased sick leave (Santhanam, 2020). For that, the organisations have to make sure there is a relation of mutual trust and respect between the company and its employees.
The debate around the menstrual leave policy in the twenty-first century portrays the struggle and articulates the position of women in society. Blatant expectation and glorification of women’s pain is nothing but a patriarchal approach to subside the needs of women employees (Saha, 2021). Today, a workplace should be inclusive of women's bodies and prioritise the employees' needs and wellness (Latha, 2018).
Every human being, by virtue of their dignity, is entitled to Human Rights. The right to health is considered one of the fundamental human rights (UNFPA, 2021). Similarly, the policy of menstrual leave is associated with human dignity. It focuses on the physical and mental wellbeing of employees functioning under organisations, and restriction of the menstrual policy will be deprived of the enjoyment of fundamental human rights.
So, is it too much for the employees to ask for a leave policy supporting their wellbeing? When several countries, especially in South Asia, support women with a menstrual leave policy, why can't India? Countries such as Japan, Taiwan, South Korea are successfully offering employees menstrual leave for more than two decades now. If Bihar can implement and function with the menstrual leave policy for so many years, shattering the taboos, what is restricting the other states from having the same?
Beyond menstrual leave policy
To note, the menstrual struggle is far more than asking for a “menstrual leave policy." As a nation, we must yearn to reach a "menstrual policy", which includes all menstruators and can respect every menstruator’s journey and has solutions beyond a 'leave.'
Although policymakers, activists and critiques talk about gender-inclusive workspace but most often debates, surrounding menstrual leave policy is not inclusive of the transgender community (Levitt et al., 2020). Zomato has included transmen within their period leave policy, but prejudice and discrimination still exist against them in most scenarios with equal access to menstrual leave. Workplaces require to be sensitised as not all menstruators are women. We need an inclusive environment for queer individuals to comfortably seek menstrual leave (Levitt et al., 2020).
Further, the period leave policy is not enough. Instead, organisations should work on multifold routes to help menstruators at work. They can explore flexible working policies for employees by synchronising with the menstrual cycle, such as; option of work-from-home, flexible working hours, frequent breaks, and most importantly, providing an office transport system (Prasad, 2018).
Management of menstrual health at the workplace with adequate washroom and sanitation facilities is a must. Proper steps to erase the associated shame and social stigma around menstruation must be taken. This will enable a higher level of employee satisfaction and a sense of belongingness.
Please note that BeyondBlood and the author are committed to using inclusive language. The gendered terminology in this blog is from quoting the literature on menstrual health which still remains very gendered.
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Chitra, R. (2017). Regressive or Real? Why period talk is touchy. Times of India. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/tracking-indian-communities/regressive-or-real-why-period-talk-is-touchy/
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Santhanam, R. (2020, August 21). Should women be entitled to menstrual leave? The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/should-women-be-entitled-to-menstrual-leave/article32407772.ece
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