Women are empowered to propagate the human race with their ability to procreate. It then becomes necessary to acknowledge the many physical and mental hardships they undergo during the different stages of maternity, including menstruation, pregnancy, miscarriage, or other related medical complications. In spite of making numerous provisions for women in difficult stages of their maternity especially through the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, the very first stage of motherhood – the menstrual period, has been knowingly or unknowingly ignored by society, the legislature and other stakeholders in society.
As of now, only two states in the country i.e. Bihar (since 1992) and Kerala (Jan 2023) grant menstrual leaves to females.
The following reasons validate the argument that paid menstrual leaves should be a reality in India:
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, period pain, or dysmenorrhea, is a common phenomenon. More than half of menstruating women experience pain for one or two days every month. For some, the pain is so severe that they are unable to perform normal activities for several days. As the representation of women in the workforce in our country steadily rises, recognition of menstrual pain becomes an important factor.
This makes it difficult for women to open up to their male colleagues for fear of being judged and more importantly, to be able to run around at the equal pace as their male counterparts.
Moreover, with various lifestyle changes, pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) affects all women.
The discomfort and limited or no access to clean and hygienic alternatives act as roadblocks for women’s participation in workforce. Menstrual leave for one or two days and also access to affordable hygienic alternatives will push the participation of women in workforce.
Also, offering menstruation leave can help to reduce this stigma by acknowledging the normalcy of menstruation and promoting an open and supportive workplace culture. It can help promote gender equality in the workplace.
However, there are a few arguments which have kept the government from approving a legislation in this regard. The most important of them is the possible fallout of employers getting dissuaded to engage a large female workforce. Women, it is well known are already underpaid than their male counterparts, and according to World Bank, the participation of women in workforce in India has gone down from 28% to 19% between 2010-2020.
It has been argued that introduction of such a policy could disincentivize employers from hiring women or it would render the women underpaid than even before, a concern that even the Supreme Court highlighted recently.
Indian democracy is about promoting equality and equity. It is the responsibility of governments to ensure a social and economic order in which all sections have avenues to grow and their needs are addressed. Menstruation and the discomfort associated with it is not and must not remain a personal problem but an issue that is societal and which must be addressed with empathy by all the stakeholders – men, women, governments, employers etc. Support of the private sector can be called in to decide on a policy as companies like Zomato, Gozoop, Culture Machine, Swiggy and Byju’s have already made such provisions for their employees.
In addition to leave, different facilities can be explored at the workplace like work-from-home, a comfortable and healthy working environment which does not shun conversation about menstruation, and providing for period care in the office.
A pan-India policy on menstrual leave for females, from educational institutions to offices to factories is the need and demand of a better social order. However, any policy in this regard must be accompanied with strict ‘no victimisation’ conditions.