Menstrual Leave Policy: A Dire Need For Inclusivity
People who menstruate have been neglected for centuries and forced to accept internalization of the physical pain and discomfort they experience when they go through their monthly cycle. Activists and feminists all around the world recurrently echo and bring on table discussion surrounding the perpetuation of patriarchal dominance over bodies of people who menstruate body and space. Our generation has been continuously reigniting the dialogue about what our periods mean, how they can unite us together, and why we must harness their full power in order to remove the stigma surrounding it.
While tracing the historical trajectory within the Indian context, ancient texts like Angirasa smrithi, Vashishta Dharma Sutras, and Sushruta Samhita comment on how one should behave during their periods. Menstruators are prescribed not to run, exercise, and refrain from doing household chores. They were also expected not to bathe, comb, apply collyrium or body anointment, and indulge in other self-adorning activities. Although no Hindu text explicitly speaks about women's segregation, we find some form of segregation, including having separate huts for menstruating women in villages, being practiced. This highlights since the beginning of history, menstruators have had to neglect their bodies' pain signals and countered masculine superiority with submissions.
In the contemporary scenario when menstruators "skip" periods (using birth control pills, for example) because they believe to "keep up" with the pace of masculine career achievement or avoid discomfort in some situation (during sex, on vacation), they unconsciously vote yes to a work environment and world which thrives on gender inequality and denies our internally-facing wisdom. This instigates the central axial of the extreme urgency for drafting a policy supporting Menstrual leave in our country being the need of the hour, as menstrual health influences across a myriad of policy areas, including economics and education activity, public health, and equality. These policy areas provide opportunities for its insertion, where it has been specifically named or sufficiently addressed.
The conceptualization of menstrual leave dates back in Japan during the early 20th century. In the 1920s, Japanese labor unions began to insist on leave (seiri kyuka) for their female workers. In 1947, a law was established by the Japanese Labor Standards that allowed menstruating people to take days off work. Since 2001 South Korea, article 71 of the Labour Standards Law, provides not only female employees the entitlement to menstrual leave but also ensures additional pay if they do not take the menstrual break they are entitled to. In 2013 Taiwan jumped on the trend, implementing menstrual leave policy as an amendment to the country's Act of Gender Equality in Employment. Menstruators are guaranteed three days of menstrual leave per year and the 30 days of half-paid sick leave. These are some international instances wherein conversation regarding menstrual health management has been initiated.
In our country we have witnessed many liberal changes in the recent past, and hopefully, the advanced list would increase in the coming future. However, certain issues have always been considered taboo , and one such case is 'Menstruation.' It is challenging in India to have an open dialogue regarding it as people seem to get too discomfited and prefer to suppress the conversation surrounding it. It was only in 2018 when Ninong Ering, a Lok Sabha MP from Arunachal Pradesh tabled the debate concerning the 'Menstruation Benefit Bill,' triggering massive discussion and argument on the necessity to have a menstrual leave policy for working females every month. The Menstruation Benefits Bill seeks to equip women employed in public and private domain two days of paid menstrual leave every month along with greater facilities for comfort in the workplace at the time of menstruation. The welfare scheme would also be extended to female students of Class VIII and above in government recognized schools. Even Though the bill seems like an excellent proposition, it overlooks the needs of trans and non-binary people; and of those belonging to marginalized communities, many of whom work in the unorganized sector, making the entire thing a topic limited to elite coffee table discussions.
The bill needs to be comprehensive and cater to menstruators across sectors and not just for those menstruators involved in a white-collar job. This bill should be inclusive and equally cater to blue, white, pink, golden, and other collar job representations. While debating the bill in the Indian context, it is essential to not bias our lens towards only one section of privileged menstruators as menstruators from all areas, irrespective of their work, menstruates. Albeit the white and golden collar jobs have facilities and luxury that can't be equivalent to the blue-collar work, the elementary coverage of blue-collar workers along with menstruators employed in informal sectors underneath the ambit of this bill (if and when passed) would be a stride towards the right direction.
Policy Makers must acknowledge that gender is a determinant of health and identify gender mainstreaming as a mechanism to achieve gender equality. Efforts must be made to address menstruation and menstrual disorders' silence to improve menstruator’s health and wellbeing. Policy designers and stakeholders should promote the integration of menstrual management into public health campaigns, upgrade data collection on menstruation within the country. Support research on effective menstruation management and menstrual disorders multidisciplinary and multi-sectoral policy, programming, and practice should be initiated. There is also a requisite to empower healthcare professionals and menstruator with the appropriate skills, knowledge, and tools for prevention, early detection, and proper management to improve menstruator's health and wellbeing and support menstruators both in the workplace and at home. The proposition of concrete policy, programming, and practice solutions can foster collaboration with relevant stakeholders.
Debates, however, continue as to whether this move is a medical necessity or a discriminatory measure. Proponents of menstrual leave compare their role to maternity leaves and hold up the argument from a gender equity perspective. It has been argued that a 'blanket' menstrual leave policy brands everyone who menstruates as ill and perpetuates sexism. Others argue against introducing a specific menstrual leave policy as it could increase the prejudice in hiring and promoting women. Informal evidence indicates a high degree of assistance for more flexible working policies that benefit all workers; however, some argue this fails to address the stigma associated with menstrual problems.
It brings us to the question of why should menstruators internalize the need to put up with period pain at their workplace? This is precisely what needs to be transformed. If they need to bare their pain in silence just to 'fit' in and not be outcast, we indeed are paddling the patriarchy cycle ahead. It is essential to remind ourselves that when we talk about equality at the workplace, it means impartiality of all working conditions for everyone and not just those acknowledged or rejected based on convenience. Menstruation is not a choice that menstruators make every month, so if someone finds it difficult to work for conditions not under their control, they should be allowed to avail leave. The Unavailability of this provision signifies the social continuity to deprive menstruator. They have worked in industries where their objectification, discomfort, pain, and violence has been taken lightly, normalized, and even exploited.
So the next time one questions why women put up with their discomfort at the workplace, why they don't join in unison to demand a period leave to attend to it, one might also want to question why as a society, we have not yet taken women's pain seriously. And why we have outsourced this failure onto women, spending centuries teaching them to ignore their body's discomfort and pain for which we still have no effective medical treatment. There is enough bias existing against women in their workplace; thoughtful initiatives in the form of strict legislation, especially for those belonging to society's underprivileged sections, must be adopted. A sensitive, well chalked out, and carefully planned policy must be incorporated to create a productive environment where everyone will thrive and perform to their best potential.
A 3rd year student pursuing Bachelors in History Honours from Lady Shri Ram College for women (University of Delhi), my interest areas include Development , Sustainability , Governance and Public Policy.