Paid Period Leaves: Start of a Conversation Long Overdue

In a country that buys sanitary napkins and tampons obscurely, the recent move by Zomato to introduce paid menstrual leaves, to say the least, is bold. A conversation about periods in India has always happened behind closed doors, in hushed voices, by altering the sentiment to cater to the discomfort of people who are not used to seeing red blood even in the advertisements of sanitary napkins. In this article, I aim to look at the reasons behind a fierce debate on period leaves, the necessity of these leaves and will try to analyse this move.

Companies like Zomato have brought the provision of paid menstrual leaves to India but this is something that has been present in countries like Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, South Korea and Zambia. Japan, particularly has been a forerunner in this regard as in 1947, Japan passed a law that allowed any woman with painful periods, or whose job might exacerbate period pain, to take time off. South Korea started a provision of paid menstrual leaves in 2001 and Indonesia too has a similar provision of two-day paid leaves. Legislators in Italy too would soon be voting on a bill that seeks to introduce a three-day paid off for women who face severe cramps.

Unbeknownst to most, India too, in 2018’s Winter Session, had seen the introduction of a Menstruation Benefits Bill seeks to provide women working in the public and private sectors two days of paid menstrual leave every month as well as better facilities for rest at the workplace during menstruation. This Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha by Ninong Ering, a then-MP from Arunachal Pradesh as a private member bill. The benefits were also to be extended to female students of Class VIII and above in government recognized schools. However, this idea is not completely foreign to India. A school in Kerala is said to have started the provision of period leaves for its students as early as 105 years ago. In the state of Bihar as well, since 1992, women have been entitled to a ‘Special Casual Leave’ for two-days though it has not been expressly named as the menstrual leave. The first Indian company to have implemented this practice was Culture Machinefollowed by Gozoop, W&D, a feminine intimate health focused company and industry ARC, a Hyderabad-based market research firm.

Coming to the debate on this topic, the first question that is raised is why is this leave needed? In countries like South Korea that have a provision for menstrual leaves, men regard this measure as reverse discrimination. Women themselves can be seen as calling this idea as a new deterrent to women’s progress in the workplace. There are also claims on how this leave can further perpetuate ideas of women being weaker and thus naturally less suited to work as an equal with men, with prominent figures opposing the move as well. What needs to be seen here is that though the opposition is firm, nobody is discussing what about menstruation is serious enough to warrant the need of leaves. In 2018, the results of a research conducted by Dr John Guillebaud showed that period cramps or dysmenorrhea can be as painful as a heart attack. At least 20% of women and girls in the world experience dysmenorrhea painful enough to disrupt their daily life and as many as 176 million women experience endometriosis, a painful affliction where tissue typically found in the uterus grows on other female reproductive organs and peels. Also in countries that already advocate the leaves being given to women, the enforcement of this is dismal and hardly any female workers take leaves for menstrual care.

Females against the move have claimed that menstruation in no way is a hurdle to their daily lives but the point here is not making every woman take a menstrual leave but to give the women who suffer in workplaces during their period an option to take a break for care without losing out on pay. These leaves aren’t meant to prove women as weak or to show that their bodies render them less capable. To take this move as an attempt at ‘ghettoisation’ shows a large emphasis being placed on what the ‘men’ in the workplace would think of the leave as to them, it can potentially make menstruation seem as a certain illness or sickness. The fact that women are alleged to be resorting to dramatics on their period also shows the absolute lack of knowledge and the impact of the taboo on conversation between the sexes on the topic of menstruation.

These leaves are neither mandatory nor forced. They are just a means to introduce the choice to take a leave. This brings us to the second question that is the need of a legal framework to enforce the provision of paid period leaves. The major argument backing the demand of a new legislation is that there is a need for ‘accommodation of biological differences’ between employees without making it a ground for discrimination.  The idea of equality at workplace should be defined as equality in working conditions for men and women and not just actions  that can be accepted or rejected based on convenience of the prevalent capitalist structure. Women are manning all spheres of work as efficiently as men and being denied equal rights is a violation of their fundamental rights. This idea is also supported by the Supreme Court’s rulings in cases like of Miss C. B. Muthamma v. Union of India and Ors. and Secretary and Ministry of Defence v. Babita Puniya and Ors. that hold that thinking of women to be the “weaker sex” is a “deeply entrenched stereotypical and constitutionally flawed notion”. In one of its recent judgements, the Himachal Pradesh High Court, quoting the Supreme Court, commented that “if society holds strong beliefs about gender roles – that men are socially dominant, physically powerful and the breadwinners of the family and that women are weak and physically submissive, and primarily caretakers confined to a domestic atmosphere – it is unlikely that there would be a change in mindsets.” The idea of framing a legislation for menstrual leaves similar to laws regarding maternity leaves will need a lot of work regarding different aspects like the increase in costs incurred by employers to give such leaves, the increase in hesitance to employ females or even the raising of barriers of recruitment for women.

I, thus, feel that the move to provide these leaves as a choice to women who need it is a welcome change. However, it is not enough. In a country where the majority of women do not the access to basic necessities like sanitary napkins and tampons, there is a lot that still need be done. The first of many steps to be taken can be a move to raise awareness and end the stigma attached to the topic of menstruation that makes women feel uncomfortable, uneasy or even ashamed to talk about what they go through every month as a part of their very biology. This new policy is not a furtherance of patriarchal cycle, rather the belief that women should suffer in silence and go on working even when their bodies don’t support them is what furthers the patriarchal cycle and encumbers women with the burden of ‘fitting in’ the workplace.

Menstruation is not a sickness; it is natural and is a different experience for every woman. Therefore, there should be awareness, acceptance and conversation around and about it. It happens as naturally as any other biological process of the human body and as Zomato’s Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Deepinder Goyal rightly said, “This is a part of life.”

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