Earlier this month, Zomato, which is a global food delivery company based in India, drew both praise and criticism for introducing a new workplace policy for company employees to take paid leaves for periods. The chief executive of the food delivery service said that the policy, which could be availed by both women and transgender persons, would be allowed up to 12 paid leaves in a year and that there should not be any “shame” or “stigma” attached to applying for such leaves.
While this move was hailed to be progressive and a trendsetter model for companies to follow, public opinion was also divided- interestingly among many women, that this would set a dangerous precedent of fear among employers to hire female employees depriving women of equal opportunities in pay structure and promotions.
But before we go into discussing the whys and hows of such leaves should ideally form a part of public policy, let’s talk stats and studies for a half a minute.
In 2017 on World Health Day, women’s fertility and health tracker- Maya, published a series of key findings on the state of physiological and menstrual health of women in India. According to the report findings of the 18 countries studied, India ranks alarmingly low when it comes to healthy menstrual cycles and stands at the bottom of the pile. Almost 50% of women in India have irregular menstrual cycles. Irregular cycles are a major cause of concern for women, which if untreated, often lead to other health issues such as infertility, PCOS, Anemia, etc. The Maya data supports various studies which show that over 20% of Indian women suffer from PCOS. The report also indicates that in India, over 68% of women have severe period-related symptoms such as cramps, tiredness, and bloating. Of the various symptoms, over 47% of users reported having cramps.
A study by Dr. John Guillebaud, who is a professor of reproductive health at University College London, talked about period pain. He described period cramping as “almost as bad as having a heart attack.” He further mentioned that about one in five women has dysmenorrhea, which is also referred to as painful periods. The severity can even lead many women to a condition where they are unable to move and could literally cry out in agony.
Now coming to the narrative that period pains are not that bad and women should just “get with it”, here is why I find that problematic. Every time a woman, including myself, complains that her cramps are bad and is beyond the normal tolerance of physical pain, there is a repetitive narrative that is shoved down our throats- particularly by older women- that our ancestors, our grandmothers, and mothers have been through much more struggles than a ‘simple’ period pain and that we shouldn’t speak about things that can be solved with a painkiller, antacid and hot-water bag. This glorification of struggles and not speaking about something that genuinely causes pain and physical discomfort is what I find deeply problematic. It is exactly such glamorization of enduring painful situations quietly is what sets women back, and worse- normalizes that notion that no matter how uncomfortable or painful the situation is, our kin should conform to an attitude which basically says “Janney bhi do yaar, it is not that big of a deal.”
But what if I do not want to adhere to a path of success that is based on the subjugation of my physical struggles? Why is it that this ‘pop-a-pill and get to work’ attitude a determinant of my ambitions? Too many women, even in 2020, are ashamed of openly stating that are in abnormal levels of pain, still hiding their sanitary napkins in their pockets while on their way to washrooms because of the fear of missing out on opportunities or even adhering to the stereotypes with which they have been brought up in of shushing up about anything to do with menstrual cycles.
Why India needs a public policy on menstruation?
Moving on, let’s talk about why menstruation leaves should be a matter of public policy, especially in a country like India.
In January 2018, Lok Sabha MP Ninong Ering from Arunachal Pradesh moved a private members’ bill – the Menstruation Benefit Bill 2017. The significance of this Bill is that it proposed that women working in both the public and private sectors be given two days of paid menstrual leave each month. The Bill also put forward recommendations to provide better rest facilities for women at their workplace during menstruation. In response to the presentation of such a Bill and whether or not the Lok Sabha had any plans to implement or propose such menstrual leaves for working women, the Ministry of Women and Children Development stated there was no such proposal and that there was also no plan either to pilot a legislation on the issue. However, unknown to many, in India, the Bihar Government has been offering two days of period leave to women employees since 1992. Women can decide which two days of the month they would like to take off without having to provide any justification for doing so.
Considering that the aforementioned Bill was a private member’s bill, the chances of it being likely passed are slim to none. However, with the debate around menstrual leaves being part of company policies picking up a storm again, discussions on this should be brought into mainstream conversations, not just among women, private and public companies, organizations but also lawmakers. While criticism of the proposal deals with isolation or exclusion of women due to such a policy, the need for such a leave based-on statistics, figures, and personal experience must be thoroughly advocated for.
Firstly, let us accept that women differ physiologically; let us also accept that experiences and endurance levels amongst women may differ from person to person. Therefore, just because one person’s endurance level may differ from the other, it cannot be a means to discredit the experiences of others. The assumption that there is a single blanket experience of all women when it comes to experiencing period pain is a narrative that has to be done away with.
Second, some reports show that India, the world’s fastest-growing major economy, could do a lot better if only it treated its women better by providing them better-working facilities. The country could add up to $770 billion—more than 18%—to its GDP by 2025, simply by giving equal opportunities to women, according to an April 23 report by the McKinsey Global Institute. Now, there are of course concerns raised whether menstrual leaves would be an escalation of benefits for women if it were to coupled with maternity leave rights in a workplace, leading to biases against hiring women. But let’s be real here- if women continued to be laid off for demanding the implementation of maternity entitlements, should we do away with maternity leave as well? In the pretext for patriarchal discrimination or oppression, are these concerns even viable?
Third, is the fact that women are biologically different and the arguments that such a policy will be discriminatory towards men, only perpetuate age-old biases and do little to take the gender equity discourse forward in a constructive and balanced manner. According to the World Bank data, 40% of the world’s workforce were women. This only implies that work-spaces cannot be gender-blind and need to be adjusted accordingly to suit women and persons of other genders and designed in a manner that would address all components of their well-being -something that needs to spelled out in clear words in the existing labor laws or facilitate the promulgation of legislation that would address these issues.
Fourth, and probably one of the main points of debate over this issue is that do period leaves need to be kept separate from the sick leave policies that companies and organizations generally offer? The reason why these two cannot be in the same box is and to put it bluntly, men are not menstruating and these common sick leaves are for instances when employees are seriously ill or are undergoing surgery or are down with the flu, measles, name it whatever illness you like. On the other hand, leaves for menstruation stems from the idea that women experiencing severe pain are given a day or two off, acknowledging their discomfort and biological needs. If one is to exercise these existing sick leaves for the day you are menstruating and then fall ill, then you are left with no option but to take a sick leave without pay- how many women, especially those who sustain their families, would risk that? How can there be a blanketed sheet of leaves applying to both men and women in the workforce when the baseline of biological conditions of running the rat-race to success is not the same for us? We need to challenge the existing workplace discipline that just because our male counterparts are running a certain path to their success, we must shun all our needs and run the same path.
What should an effective policy on menstruation in India look like?
Of course, merely designing such a policy would be futile. For its implementation to be effective, it must be introduced alongside measures such as providing women the flexibility to work from home including work-from-home options as well as increasing the participation of women in the workforce and make our workplaces more gender-sensitive. According to an economic survey in 2018, the percentage of women who work has declined over time, from 36% of women being employed in 2005-06 to 24% in 2015-16. With discussions happening right around this, there needs to be a collective and time-bound response to ensuring that there is recognition of the fact that women do not have to keep proving their competence and excellence at the expense of their health and wellbeing.
Such a policy would also need to focus on chipping away at period taboos that too often fuel silence and shame around menstruation, making it easier for menstruating persons to manage their periods.
Ideally, such a policy should also include/address:
- A program to assist women who cannot afford sanitary napkins, tampons and other means maintaining menstrual hygiene: According to a National Family Health Survey 2015-2016 estimates that of the 336 million menstruating women in India, only about 121 million (roughly 36 percent) women are using sanitary napkins, locally or commercially produced. And while non-profits have stepped in to bridge the gap to provide adequate care and menstrual hygiene amenities to women who cannot afford it, there needs to be accountability on part of the lawmakers. A 2014 report by the NGO Dasra titled ‘Spot On!’ informed that almost 23 million girls in India drop out of school annually, because of lack of menstrual hygiene management facilities, including the availability of sanitary napkins and awareness about menstruation.
- Holistic reproductive health and sex education system that dislodges period myths: A 2016 study titled – ‘Menstrual hygiene management among adolescent girls in India’ involving nearly 100,000 girls in India found that almost 50,000 did not know about menstruation until the first time they got their period. The study further explains how many girls even think that they are dying or have caught a horrible disease, the first time they menstruate, due to the pain and blood.
- Subsidized rates on sanitary napkins, tampons, and other menstrual amenities: Although the Government of India did not go ahead with imposing a ridiculous 12% GST on sanitary napkins, this exemption did little to bring the desired reduction in the overall consumption price of sanitary napkins. And while menstrual products are essential to a woman’s health, such products are often slapped with a very selling price amount, making them an almost luxury commodity. It is not like one can just lay there and ignore the flow, when one gets their period. So there is no choice but to buy these products, so the economic effect is only felt by only women and menstruating persons alone. It’s like being taxed for, you know, just bleeding.
There have been many countries such as Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, and South Korea already have provisions in the labor laws contracts to grant female employees menstrual leaves. For instance, Japan as early as 1947, passed a law allowing women with debilitating periods to take days off. Similarly, in South Korea, women were granted menstrual leave from the year 2001 onwards.
According to Census 2011 population data, about 336 million girls and women in India are of reproductive age and menstruate for 2-7 days, every month, making it a public health concern. However, even with such a large number of menstruating persons, India is yet to formally have a legitimize a public policy on menstrual rights and health to date. Every now and then, when a company or an organization makes a bold and progressive move like Zomata did, public opinion, discourse, and dissent are often limited to social media wars. The momentum passes, and we are back to debating whether or not complaints about periods and demands for period leave basically are excuses made up by women who cannot simply “suck it up.”
In her article If Men Could Menstruate, feminist Gloria Steinem suggested that women were not “lesser than” men because of menstruation but that menstruation itself is seen negatively because it is experienced by women in a patriarchal society. Needless to say, we do not need men to experience menstruation for us to see that our lives could and should be organized so that women who experience minimum discomfort and are able to avail to the maximum of the capacities unleashed around and during menstruation.
Period leave is a step in the direction of such a world.
 World Health Day is celebrated on 7th April every year.
By Joanna Shireen
Joanna is an Advocate of the High Court at Calcutta. She is also a Legal Consultant for Human Rights issues. At present, she provides her expertise in litigation matters arising out of human trafficking cases and represents victims of commercial sexual assault at various Courts and legal forums across West Bengal.