A government committee that inquired into the reasons for these mass hysterectomies concluded that they resulted from the absence of menstrual hygiene facilities and toilets and the lack of awareness about women’s health.
That incident is a reminder that instituting paid menstrual leave for all working women could be one of the most significant steps that policy makers could take to recognise the challenges that many women face at work during those painful, uneasy days every month. Menstrual leave would give them the option to take leave without pay being deducted.
Advocates of the policy say paid leave must be provided to working menstruating women because their bodily condition requires relief. But opponents argue that menstrual leave would lead to women being stereotyped as weaker, less productive and that it would lead to discrimination due to the biologically determined aspect of being woman. They suggest that sick leave or medical leave should be sufficient to cover any bodily discomforts caused by menstruation.
Workplaces often fail to understand the biological process of menstruation. Not all women can put on a strong face and endure the pain to show up at work when they are having their periods. The mood swings and physical weakness that many experience during their periods are not imaginary.
One of the challenges of instituting a menstrual leave policy is the misogyny and a culture of apathy at workplaces: work cultures fail to empathise with women colleagues for the discomfort caused due to menstruation.
For universal acceptance of a paid menstrual leave policy, it is essential to create a space for conversations about “menstrual positivity at work”.
Labour laws in India like the ones in the Factories Act, 1948 and the Mines Act 1952 do provide some relief to women workers. For instance, women are not supposed to be involved in heavy machinery work and are prohibited from working in underground mines. These provisions have been included because heavy labour could harm women’s reproductive health. Given that this recognition already exists, why can’t Indian labour laws engage with the arguments about menstruation, which is also part of the reproductive identity?
In 1979, feminist Gloria Steinem’s essay “If Men Could Menstruate” in Ms magazine created an uproar. Four decades later, her central contention remains true. If men could menstruate, employee welfare policies would be different. Labour unions would demand paid recognition of the condition – if this had not already been done by the authorities. The religious and societal stigma in India, and neighbouring South Asian countries, would vanish and be replaced by notions that glorify men’s fertility, endurance and strength. Days off for comfort would not be met with disdain or sexism.
The 2017 Menstrual Benefit Bill presented in Lok Sabha by Ninong Ering, a Congress MLA from Pasighat West in Arunachal Pradesh had proposed that denying menstrual leave to a woman worker should be criminalised.
But the point that tends to get missed is that menstrual leave is not just about allowing or disallowing relief to a worker but also about ensuring an atmosphere at the workplace that recognises and accepts menstruation. That would include subsidised accessibility to menstruation products, reproductive health awareness and state-led initiatives to ensure menstrual policies.
Women labour every day, indoors or outdoors. Recognising the right to paid menstrual leave would help create a culture that makes workplaces just and equitable for all workers.
Radhika Jagtap and Sunishtha Moghe are Assistant Professors at Symbiosis Law School, Pune.