A digital media company in Mumbai recently declared that they would offer “first day of period leave” or FOP leave for its women employees, triggering a lively debate on social media about whether we need menstruation leave policies for all working women across the country. While the open discussion about menstruation is welcome, there is much more to be considered when it comes to ensuring women employees’ well-being, starting with making workplaces more menstruation-friendly.
Women employees of the Mumbai company that has instituted the leave policy have started a petition to be submitted to the government asking that FOP leave be made government policy. But any policy should have a broader focus than just a single day’s leave.
A large number of women in India face menstrual disorders, like irregular bleeding, heavy bleeding and menstrual pain. Stressful work environments and commutes add to the pain and discomfort. Some women resort to tinkering with their menstrual cycles by using hormonal pills, possibly without medical supervision, to avoid menstruating on days of important tasks and meetings. Unsupervised use of hormonal pills leads to a lot of health complications which may be harmful in the long term. The option of a day’s leave every month for women to rest resting during their periods is welcome. However, for a policy on menstruation leave to work, policymakers must account for practical implications to avoid the backlash that women might face.
Corporate cultures are already somewhat reluctant to accommodate the needs of pregnant women despite India’s legal requirement to do so and despite the scientific evidence that child-care benefits do not negatively affect economic performance of companies. Studies have also shown that women living in developed nations with generous child-care benefits are not able to sustain their professional status, often coming back to contract-based lower paying jobs after maternity leave. Other studies also note that extending the child-care benefits demotivates companies from hiring women altogether or result in more women in the reproductive age being fired than other categories of workers. Holistic public health policies in developed nations do not completely ensure gender parity in the workforce, India, if it chooses to implement FOP leave as policy, must ensure that such leave will not be used as an excuse to disadvantage women in their professional lives.
Not just working women
While talking about FOP leave, let us also consider the needs and problems of adolescent girls attending schools. Several studies show that girls miss out schools during their menstruation as school infrastructure and environment are not menstruation-friendly. If adult women are able to avail of FOP leave, should adolescent girls be able to do so as well?
Many studies suggest that most adolescent girls and women do not like to disclose the fact that they are menstruating due to taboos associated with it. My own study among urban and rural adolescent girls and women had instances where educated, urban women reported that they did not feel comfortable discussing menstruation with male family members or friends. Hence, it is worth considering how privacy of women employees would be protected in scenarios where supervisors are men and the employees reporting to them are women.
Offering FOP leave should not absolve employers from their responsibility of creating an environment conducive to menstruation. Hence, instead of demanding just an FOP leave, a policy which is primarily focused on a menstrual leave on the first day of the periods, we should ask for a more comprehensive sustainable menstruation policy that ensures that workplaces have small rest areas, good quality toilets, the availability of good quality sanitary products, dustbins as well as medications and a doctor on call. It is possible that such comprehensive changes about office spaces – as well as schools and public spaces – may negate the need many women feel to take leave during their periods.
During her pregnancy, when Sheryl Sandberg found that parking lots allotted to pregnant women were too far away for her to walk at the Google campus, she asked the company to create parking lots for pregnant women closer to the building. Similarly, asking for period leaves can be just one part of a multi-faceted solution to addressing the necessities of menstruation in the workplace. If we do not want women to be out of office on certain days of the month, we need to create offices that can fulfill the necessities of menstruating women. That will be a lasting solution.
The writer is a PhD scholar in social epidemiology at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar.