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Periodic Struggles: Why Menstrual Leave Shouldn't Just be a Corporate Policy but Legal, Social Right

Image for representation.
(News18 creative by Mir Suhail)

Image for representation. (News18 creative by Mir Suhail)

The argument that period leave should not be given because it results in increased discrimination against the same group for whose benefit it is being proposed is not just inherently flawed, but also extremely wrong.

A Twitter storm erupted recently after journalist Barkha Dutt criticized food delivery startup, Zomato, for introducing 'period leaves' for its women and transgender employees. Dutt wrote on the microblogging site, "Sorry Zomato, as woke as your decision on #PeriodLeave is, this is exactly what ghettoizes women and strengthens biological determinism. We cannot want to join the infantry, report war, fly fighter jets, go into space, want no exceptionalism, and want period leave. PLEASE."

Dutt isn't the only one who thinks that period leave would result in 'ghettoizing women', causing employers to discriminate against them, or not hire them at all. In 2013, when a Russian lawmaker, Mikhail Degtyaryov, a member of the nationalist LDPR party, asked the parliament to give female employees two days' paid leave each month during their menstruation cycle, human rights groups, as well as women groups, were quick to condemn it for the same reason. A similar situation arose in Italy in 2017 when a bill was proposed in the parliament in favor of menstrual leave, and many (including women) opposed it, claiming that it would hurt women's job prospects in the long run, and hence it should not be made into a law.

However, the argument that period leave should not be given because it results in increased discrimination against the same group for whose benefit it is being proposed is not just inherently flawed, but also extremely wrong.

Firstly, if corporate companies which are largely headed by men, don't hire women employees because they have period leaves, then the problem obviously is the corporate companies (men in their management position) who choose to discriminate on the basis of gender and not a policy that is aimed at protecting the interests of women. Therefore, what is required is to ensure that better policies are framed so that such discrimination does not happen, it is surely not to do away with period leaves altogether which actually does help many women.

Not Just a Corporate Policy but a Legal Right

According to a study done in 2017 by Women’s fertility and health tracker, Maya, almost 68 percent of Indian women have severe period-related symptoms such as cramps, tiredness, and bloating. For such women, period leaves can be a boon. In fact, period leaves shouldn't just be the privilege that women in white-collar jobs can access, and it is imperative that women from rural sectors, low-income households are also given this benefit.

Media reports claimed that in Maharashtra, thousand of women laborers have surgically removed their wombs just so that they can get work during the harvest season in sugarcane fields. In a garment factory in Tamil Nadu, women were given unprescribed, unnamed drugs when they complained of period pains, which not only cause depression and anxiety in many, but also resulted in urinary tract infections, fibroids, and even miscarriages.

It is imperative that such women can also access period leave, therefore, mere corporate policies formed on a company to company basis, with no standardized law won't be sufficient for our country and what is required is a strong labor law that helps in incorporating period leaves, while reducing the scope of discrimination.

Of course, the naysayers will argue that if such a law is passed, then the discrimination will start at the entry-level itself, and men will be picked over women because they would work for more days each year. However, that discrimination can also be curbed if policymakers can incentivize corporates, private firms, small scale industries, farm owners to hire women for work by giving them tax cuts, or other benefits.

If period leave has to be effectively incorporated, then it would be best if the push came from the government and policymakers. In the state of Bihar, for instance, it already exists. Two days every month has been given out to women government employees since the year 1992 as period leave.

In India, in fact, period leave is an old practice. According to a book published by the state-run Kerala Sahitya Akademi in 1988, titled Kerala in the 19th Century, authored by historian P Bhaskaranunni, the Principal of The Government Girls School in Tripunithura, (located in the erstwhile Cochin) had requested the school management to grant women teachers, and students leave during their menstrual cycle because they mostly skipped school during those days anyway.

The Need To Destigmatise periods

Japan has perhaps had the provision of period leave for the longest time. It was initially incorporated after world war II when women entered the workforce in large numbers, but over the years, lesser women have been availing it.

According to a report in The Guardian, women who want to take leave due to their period pain just apply for regular leave instead of menstrual leave in order to avoid 'embarrassment'. They do not want to let their male colleagues know that they have their periods, because they worry that it might lead to teasing or sexual harassment, and more often than not, they do not want to be 'perceived as weak' by taking such leaves.

These are common problems that women are likely to face if period leave is incorporated in India as well. In fact, the degree may be amplified because until now, the topic of menstruation itself was considered a social taboo in our country. Therefore, there is a need to destigmatize period in workspaces, and to take women's pain seriously, instead of trivializing it, which happens quite often.

Another thing that has to be understood by employers is that productivity or output is not tied to the number of hours an individual spends in office. A female worker can be far more productive after a day of rest during her periods rather than when she is holding her stomach and grimacing in pain, and watching the clock waiting for her work hours to end. Likewise, that female worker can also be equally as productive on the whole as another male worker who doesn't get period leave.

Periods Aren't Just Women's Problem

What Dutt so conveniently forgot in her argument is that it isn't just women who experience periods. Several trans men also experience them and for many of them, it is a painful experience. Therefore, period leave isn't just a woman rights issue, an LGBTQ issue, and above all, it is a human rights issue, that includes a larger cross-section of society (apart from the 49.6 percent of the world population who are women) and many among this cross-section need this kind of leave, therefore, it isn't a proposition one should dismiss within 280 characters of Twitter.

Had the women trade unionists, lobbyists, and activists backed down from asking for paid maternity leave in 1919, stating that women would face discrimination at the workplace if they took leave before and after their pregnancy, then we would never have the rights for paid maternity leave. Of course, our workspaces which are deeply patriarchal doesn't change overnight, and every woman who has set foot in an office in the last 101 years will tell you, that women still face discrimination for their maternity leaves in some way or another, but that doesn't mean that we have failed to normalize maternity leaves in this past century.