The Menstruation Benefit Bill tabled by a Member of Parliament from Arunachal Pradesh earlier this year triggered widespread debate on the need for India to put in place a system of paid leave for all working women every month.
Several countries have introduced a menstrual leave provision for their employees. As early as 1947, Japan 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. Companies like Nike have also adopted similar policies.
While not commonly known, 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. In the recent past, a handful of private companies like the Mumbai-based media firm, Culture Machine, have also started offering menstrual leave.
Those who are not in favour of the policy argue that it will only prejudice employers against hiring women and lead to their alienation at work.
They also believe that most women are capable of functioning at full capacity even during their periods and for the handful of women who do suffer debilitating symptoms, the existing sick leave option is adequate.
Some have even cited the example of Serena Williams who won a major tournament while she was pregnant highlighting that women do not need any “special” treatment.
Another concern that has been voiced on social media is that menstrual leave policies might discriminate against men as women would get additional days off every year.
While one can certainly argue against the need for a period leave policy, the problem with these arguments is that they only perpetuate age old biases and do little to take the gender equity discourse forward in a constructive and balanced manner.
Firstly, just because some women can pull off remarkable feats their examples should not be used to discredit the experiences of other women.
For instance, some studies have shown that women are indeed better multi-taskers than men. This, however, does not mean that as a society we should expect every woman to be able to multi-task with ease or make her feel inferior if she is unable to do so.
Secondly, those who are biased against hiring women do not need additional excuses. After all women continued to be laid off for demanding the implementation of maternity entitlements. So, should we do away with maternity leave as well? Just about anything can be a pretext for patriarchal discrimination or oppression. In a factory in Kerala, female workers were allegedly strip searched by their supervisors to identify the “culprit” who had left a used sanitary napkin in the lavatory.
Third, the fact is that women are biologically different. This is precisely why maternity leave is more common than paternity leave. Also, while it is true that periods are debilitating only for some women, the numbers are not insignificant.
For instance, according to the Clinical Evidence Handbook published by the BMJ Publishing Group, UK, 20 per cent of women suffer from symptoms like cramps, nausea, fever and weakness which are debilitating enough to hamper their daily activities. Several women also experience reduced emotional control and decreased concentration.
Further, estimates of the Endometriosis Society India suggest that over 25 million women suffer from endometriosis, a chronic condition in which period pain is so bad that women nearly pass out from it.
While numbers are important, we must appreciate that in a civilised society even one woman should not have to prove her competence at the cost of her well-being or find ways of “controlling” her condition to avoid being labelled as unstable.
Fourth, the reasoning that such a policy would discriminate against men is extremely illogical because it conveniently overlooks the fact that women do not enjoy the discomfort caused by periods.
Moreover, women in India get paid much less than men, therefore even if they are offered a few days of extra leave, it would not compensate for their substantially lower wages. In fact, the World Economic Forum’s ‘Global Gender Gap Report’ ranks India a dismal 136 out of 144 countries for parity in wages between men and women.
Thus, it would be worthwhile developing a policy that allows women the flexibility to take time off for periods should they need to while also providing them with options like working from home. Flexibility is important because unlike family leave policies which tend to be based on more universal experiences, women’s experience of menstruation varies widely.
Of course, merely designing such a policy is meaningless. For its implementation to be effective, it must be introduced alongside measures to increase the participation of women in the workforce and make our workplaces more gender sensitive.
Worryingly, the female workforce participation rate in the country has declined from 36 per cent of women employed in 2005-06 to 24 per cent in 2015-16. We need to urgently put in place and act on time-bound targets for reversing this decline. This, of course, will happen only when all stakeholders understand that women are the ultimate economic accelerators. We also need to ensure access to separate toilets for men and women with facilities for disposal of sanitary napkins in all workplaces.
Menstruation is a perfectly natural biological process, not a disease or a disability. However, it can range from a slightly discomforting to a severely debilitating experience for women.
Therefore, instead of requiring women to adjust to workplaces designed for men, we need to transform our workplaces to be inclusive and sensitive to the needs of all employees. This will ensure an enabling environment in which both men and women can thrive and perform up to their maximum potential.
The author is a Public Policy Specialist, Office of Vice-Chairman, NITI Aayog. The views expressed are personal.