Period Politics: How Does Menstrual Leave Play Out in Our Fight for Equality?

By Ninong Ering and Abhishek Ranjan

For most women, getting their monthly periods prompts a standard procedure: Ignore the heavy flow, pop a pill if necessary, and keep moving on with their daily lives and jobs.

However, there are some women who need to take a day or two off. It could be due to severe cramps, endometriosis or dysmenorrhea, which are incredibly painful. In this case, following Japan, China and South Korea’s lead, implementing a menstrual leave policy in our country will enable women to take two days off from work every month at the beginning of their menstrual cycle.

Interestingly, the Ningxia region in Northern China implemented this leave under a different circumstance. Ningxia announced this policy on 17 August, 2016 – just days after China’s Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui discussed her fourth place loss in the Rio Olympics, suggesting that her physical exhaustion due to menstruation slowed down her strokes.

This sparked conversations by Chinese women about how their cycle slowed down their productivity in the workplace. The Ningxia government then consciously included a clause on punishment for employers who did not follow the new guidelines.

In our own country, the state of Bihar has had special leave for women for two days since 1992 (although it is not explicitly referred to as the menstruation leave). A teacher working at a high school in Lakhisarai, Bihar, Dr Prabhawati, told us, “Special leave is like a boon for women employees as it helps us in balancing our health issues with our work responsibilities. When I joined in 1994 as a teacher, some male colleagues made fun of this special leave. But now, it has been normalised. I think male colleagues have also become more sensitive and do not mock us anymore. However, I am not sure how these leaves will be seen in the private sector.”

India too came very close to the implementation of this policy last year, but unfortunately, this Private Member Bill was not passed in the Parliament. It has been finally placed on the table of Lok Sabha in August 2018 by Member of Parliament Ninong Ering (co-writer of this piece).

When the term ‘menstrual leave’ was first mentioned, the counter argument that immediately came up was, “Now there’s something that will enrage and provide more ammunition to the so-called ‘men’s rights activists’.”

It was a legitimate concern. As a country, we are still battling for the most basic forms of gender equality in almost every aspect of modern life – at the workplace, in relationships and personal lives. Can we then promote any preferential treatment for women that might endanger the march towards equality?

The worry is that menstrual leave policy may reinforce the age-old conservative belief that women are addled creatures who need special care, bringing with it other regressive beliefs and attitudes. It is therefore important to educate ourselves on how physically inconvenient, if not painful, a period can be for the average woman.

To put it in the simplest of terms, a period is a biological process where the womb sheds the inner uterine wall in the absence of a pregnancy, and this is expelled from the body in the form of a heavy blood flow. To go through it every single month for at least 40 years of one’s life is not easy.

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Women at work in a food factory in Mangalore (photo credit: Pixabay)

It understandably takes a mental and a physical toll on any woman who works long hours every day, and if this is combined with a debilitating condition like dysmenorrhea (which has a 40-70% occurrence in Indian women), it might be extremely hard for many women to just get out of bed, let alone be productive at work. In this case, having a menstrual leave policy at the workplace is completely justified – it can reduce the toll of the physical pain on women.

While implementing such a policy will definitely help a woman’s work productivity and therefore the productivity of the companies in the long run, it may also place some burdens on the private sector. In order to incentivise companies to follow the law, the government can provide tax exemptions or compensate the company for the menstrual leaves availed by its women employees so that the burden of compliance is reduced.

“But how can you call yourself a feminist by saying that you want equality, yet demand special treatment for women?” some ask. A policy like menstrual leave does indicate the bearings of differential treatment, and but in no way does it demean the women’s empowerment movement.

It does not classify as preferential treatment or entitlement if it provides relief from a painful physical process that a whole gender has to suffer through for a large portion of their lives.

But if menstrual leave could be implemented, it would go on to greatly lessen a woman’s stress during her period cycle, thus giving her the option of staying home and working on her own terms, as opposed to making frequent trips to the washroom to change her sanitary pad, or popping in painkillers just to get through the next few hours.

While such a policy could polarise male counterparts in the workplace, this could be combated through the acknowledgement of stigma surrounding the issue. The stigma surrounding menstrual periods has been so thoroughly internalised that it becomes awkward to discuss the pain or discomfort that women face.

Period pain can no longer be a topic of taboo, especially when it concerns women as a whole. It is a topic that must be normalised and spoken up about, so as to raise awareness. A woman’s menstrual issues are something that only she can make decisions on, not a third-person who decides to trivialise her pain by saying ‘it is not that big a deal’.

Ninong Ering is Member of Parliament, Arunachal East, and Abhishek Ranjan is a policy analyst. They can be reached on Twitter at @ninong_erring and @deetee08

Lead image: Cezanne Ali on Unsplash (for representational purpose only). First published in eShe’s September 2018 issue