Don’t leave the ‘leave’ debate

Vidula Sonagra
Monday, 19 March 2018

A lot has been written and spoken about menstrual leave, and the debate still continues and should continue to bring us closer to the goal of gender equality

During Pad Man’s release, social media was flooded with celebrities holding sanitary napkins. For years, women’s rights activists have been talking and working on menstrual hygiene and awareness, and engaging in nuanced debates on reproductive rights of women, but it took a mainstream Bollywood film to draw attention to the issue. However, the strength and weakness of Akshay Kumar’s film is not the concern of this write-up. Here’s an opportunity for us to engage in discussions like rituals related to menstruation, biodegradable sanitary pads, menstrual leave and so on.

Talking about menstrual leave, earlier in January this year, Congress MP Ninong Ering from Arunachal Pradesh moved a private member’s Bill — The Menstruation Benefit Bill, 2017 — that proposed for two days’ paid menstrual leave in both public and private sectors. In response to her question, the Ministry of Women & Child said that the ministry did not have any plans to legislate the issue. Whether it should be one or two days’ leave can be decided after deliberation. First, it is important to understand the necessity for menstrual leave. 

Though not very old, the debate around menstrual leave has surfaced time and again. Japan was the first country to grant menstrual leave back in 1947. Other countries which have provision include China, Indonesia, South Korea. In a country like India talking about periods was a taboo; in fact, in many quarters it still is. Most sanitary napkin ads still use the colour blue to indicate period blood.  

When I first learnt about the idea of menstrual leave, I was glad it existed. But I simply shrugged it off as it seemed to be a distant dream for women of our country. The demand for menstrual leave seemed pretty obvious to me from experiential vantage point. Since last year much has been written about it both in favour and against it. There must be deliberations on these concerns to arrive at a decision which will bring us closer to the goal of gender equality. 

Some of the women have suggested that demand for menstrual leave is just a trivialisation of larger women’s issues and would further reiterate “incapability of women” to work like men.

Women for long has been conditioned to endure and hide the pain they experience. There is a constant pressure on  women to “prove” that despite being a woman and facing challenges arising due to our reproductive organs we are can function as if they don’t exist. For long, we have not spoken about menstruation and the pain it causes. University College, London, research suggests that menstrual pain is as “bad as having a heart attack”. Whether it is as bad as any other pain or not the fact remains menstrual pain is severe and causes discomfort to all women. Like the experience of any other pain it affects the productivity of those experiencing it. So women must have a  choice both at work and home to take a day off during their menses. 

Many have argued compulsory menstrual leave would adversely affect employability of women. There were similar concerns when maternity leave was introduced. It must be pointed out that there is a bias against women not because of these benefits but because of the patriarchal mindset. It does little service to gender justice if we let go of women’s rights just because it would affect them adversely which is already the case. Instead our focus should be to deal with the patriarchal mindset of the recruiting management. 

Discarding the demand of period leave on the basis that it would only benefit women working in the formal sector is akin to saying we need to give up employment benefits as it is not extended to informal sector workers. The discussion, however, should be taken forward and focus on how these employment rights and benefits can be made accessible to women working in the informal sector as well. There is also the need to regularise employment terms of domestic workers so that they too enjoy similar work benefits including menstrual leave.

Some have also suggested that if women find it difficult to work when they are menstruating they can take sick leave. It is important to understand the difference between the two. Firstly, menstruation is not the same as being sick. Secondly, like men, women do fall sick otherwise and may want to use their limited sick leave when they actually require it. So, menstrual leave is one of the factors that can help make the work environment women friendly.

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