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It’s a bloody right

Somi Das | Updated on August 21, 2020

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As the debate over period leave heats up it’s time to weigh in on what women really want

* Premenstrual syndrome or PMS, experienced by 75 per cent of women, involves fatigue, headache and abdominal bloating, among other symptoms.

*Dysmenorrhea or period cramps affect 16-91 per cent of women in the reproductive age group, varying with age.

*Anywhere between 2 to 29 per cent of women face excruciating levels of pain and some suffer co-morbidities such as endometriosis or uterine fibroid. Clearly, for large sections of women, period leave is necessary.

You have been replying to your male colleagues in monosyllables. Must be ‘that’ time of the month, someone whispers. And you can hear the titters. Menstruation has for long been a subject that triggers snarky comments and muffled laughter. And that explains why a move to give women leave during their periods has kicked up such a furore.

Every time a company introduces menstrual leave as a policy, social media erupts, raising the usual stink. Recently, when food delivery app Zomato announced its 10-day (a year) menstrual leave policy for its women employees, the joy of the news was marred by questions raised on the impact it would have on a woman’s employability and productivity at the workplace. Forget men who tweeted that granting women leave for their menstruation would be a special privilege; the ones raising the most questions were feminists.

India has for long tiptoed over the issue of menstruation. In a country where the subject is still taboo, a major chunk of feminist activism went into breaking the idea of “impurity” associated with this biological process, along with making menstrual hygiene accessible. But menstrual leave has never had a successful campaign.

The few small attempts made fizzled out after the initial buzz. In 2017, Culture Machine, a digital media company, introduced a one day a month leave policy for menstruating employees in India. Its sister organisation Blush started a petition seeking a law on period leave. The petition, posted on Change.org, garnered 30,000 supporters over three years and then died a silent death.

The time has come to take the bull by the horns. Premenstrual syndrome or PMS, experienced by 75 per cent of women, involves fatigue, headache and abdominal bloating, among other symptoms. According to a paper published in Epidemiologic Reviews, Dysmenorrhea or period cramps affect 16-91 per cent of women in the reproductive age group, varying with age. Anywhere between 2 to 29 per cent of women face excruciating levels of pain and some suffer co-morbidities such as endometriosis or uterine fibroid. Clearly, for large sections of women, period leave is necessary.

A 2019 study by the Radboud University Medical Center in Nijmegen (The Netherlands) reveals that women lose nine days of productivity to “presenteeism” — not being able to work while present in office because of period discomfort. Of the women who call in sick due to cramps or related problems, only a fifth cited their period as the cause.

Despite the data on the intensity of discomfort and impairment due to periods being in the public domain for some time now, there is nervousness around mainstreaming the demand for menstrual leave. This coyness perhaps stems from an understanding of the sinister nature of gender politics around menstruation.

Working on menstruating days often means that women are subjected to casual sexism around symptoms and jokes that paint women as irrational, hormonal creatures prone to mood swings. But men are no exception to hormonal imbalances. Research shows that one of the most common side effects of ageing in men is a decline in levels of testosterone, which can lead to symptoms such as fatigue and mood swings. But the idea is not to look at biology as a kind of disability for either sex.

Feminists worldwide fear that furthering the cause of period leave can be used to deny them the right to equal pay for equal work. A 2018 study done by Hive, a productivity platform that tracks the rosters of large companies, showed that women earn only 81.9 per cent of what men do for the same work.

Feminists who worked hard to ensure equal rights at the work place feel that asking for period leave can lead to fewer women being hired or promoted. Recently, in the debate on social media, a vocal voice was that of a woman journalist who said she would not have done the intrepid reporting she was known for had she been demanding period leave.

“The other thing hideous about the idea of period leave is it turns a normal biological event into some sort of monumental event, gendering us at the work place when we have fought so hard to not be gendered,” she tweeted last week. But advocates of menstrual leave believe that this insistence on negating women’s biology is no less toxic than the claim of a section of men that women use periods as an excuse to shirk responsibility.

It will perhaps be easier to accept menstrual leave as overdue and not as a luxury if it were seen as a step in the direction of creating a new world order, where workplaces are designed to prioritise the physical and mental wellbeing of employees. A world where people — women, but men too — can earn their living in a way that takes into account their body’s and mind’s strength on most days, and limitations on a few.

Somi Das is a writer, journalist and art practitioner based in Delhi

Published on August 20, 2020

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