The story so far: On February 24, the Supreme Court refused to entertain a PIL about menstrual leave for workers and students across the country, calling it a policy matter. It highlighted that there were different “dimensions” to menstrual pain leave, and also that while menstruation was a biological process, such leave may also act as a “disincentive” for employers from engaging female employees.
The court was hearing a petition filed by Shailendra Mani Tripathi, represented by advocate Vishal Tiwari, seeking a direction to States to frame rules for granting menstrual pain leave for students and working women in workplaces. The Bench, comprising Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud, Justice PS Narasimha and Justice JB Pardiwala, urged the petitioner to approach the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development Ministry to frame a policy.
The concept of menstrual leave for workers and students has swirled around for a couple of centuries, but such policies are uneven and subject to much debate, even among feminist circles. Sources note that menstruating women were given leave from paid labour in Soviet Russia in the 1920s; a historian even claims that a school in Kerala granted period leave as early as 1912.
In light of this, we explore the global framework for menstrual leave and which countries currently have them
Menstrual leave explained
Menstrual leave or period leave refers to all policies that allow employees or students to take time off when they are experiencing menstrual pain or discomfort. In the context of the workplace, it refers to policies that allow for both paid or unpaid leave, or time for rest.
Most women experience a menstrual cycle of 28 days— a normal cycle may vary from 23 to 35 days. For some, period pain, or dysmenorrhea, is an uncomfortable component of it. More than half of those who menstruate experience pain for a couple of days a month; for some it is debilitating enough to hamper daily activities and productivity.
Between 15% to 25% of people who menstruate will experience moderate to severe menstrual cramps, according to Siobán Harlow, a professor of epidemiology and global public health at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. A 2017 survey of 32,748 women in the Netherlands published in the British Medical Journal also found that 14% had taken time off from work or school during their periods. The researchers estimated that employees lost around 8.9 days’ worth of productivity every year due to menstrual-cycle related issues.
Menstrual leave polices are designed with a view to allow women time off if they suffer from symptoms which may hamper their functioning and productivity.
However, not everyone— not even all those who menstruate— are in favour of menstrual leave. Some believe either that it is not required or that it will backfire and lead to employer discrimination against women.
For example, in response to the plea filed in the Supreme Court, a caveat was filed by law student Anjale Patel, represented by advocate Satya Mitra, highlighting a potential issue with menstrual leave. “The law student says that if you compel employers to grant menstrual pain leave, it may operate as a de facto disincentive for employers to engage women in their establishments… This has a policy dimension,” Chief Justice Chandrachud observed.
To Mr. Tiwari’s point that menstruation was a biological process and women should not be discriminated against in educational institutions and workplaces, the Court responded thus: “We are not denying it… But the student says that is what employers may do in actual practice. There are different dimensions to the issue, we will leave it to the policy makers. Let them first formulate a policy, we will consider it then.”
In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Barkha Dutt called the proposal “paternalistic” and said that it “trivializes the feminist agenda for equal opportunity.”
What kind of menstrual leave policies are in place globally?
On February 16, Spain became the first European country to grant paid menstrual leave to workers, among a host of other sexual health rights. Workers now have the right to three days of menstrual leave— expandable to five days— a month. The government will pay for the provision, with the country’s equality minister Irene Montero saying in Parliament that women are not “full citizens” without such rights.
In Asia, Japan introduced menstrual leave as part of labour law in 1947, after the idea became popular with labour unions in the 1920s. At present, under Article 68, employers cannot ask women who experience difficult periods to work during that time. However, many women may not avail of it— a 2014 study by the government revealed that less than 0.9% of the surveyed women who had such a policy in place in their workplace had actually taken leave.
Indonesia too introduced a policy in 1948, amended in 2003, saying that workers experiencing menstrual pain are not obliged to work on the first two days of their cycle. In the Philippines, workers are permitted two days of menstrual leave a month. Taiwan has an Act of Gender Equality in Employment in place. Under Article 14 of the Act, employees have the right to request a day off as period leave every month, at half their regular wage. Three such leaves are permitted per year— extra leaves are counted as sick leave.
South Korea takes a slightly different route, allowing for monthly physiologic leave under Article 73 of their labour law, allowing all female workers to get a day off every month. Vietnam’s labour law takes a different approach too, stipulating a 30-minute break for women every day of their period cycle. However, in 2020, a three-day leave per month was added, and those who didn’t take the leave needed to be paid extra.
Among the African nations, Zambia introduced one day of leave a month without needing a reason or a medical certificate, calling it a Mother’s Day. The petition also mentioned that the United Kingdom, China and Wales have menstrual leave provisions.
In 2016, a proposal to introduce menstrual leave in Italy failed in Parliament, allaying the concerns of those worried that it would affect hiring of women. The U.S does not have a formal policy in place either; the U.S also does not have a federal requirement for paid sick leave.
Companies across nations, such as Nike and Coexist, have introduced menstrual leave as an internal policy.
What attempts are being made in India?
In India, too, certain companies have brought in menstrual leave policies— the most famous example being Zomato in 2020, which announced a 10-day paid period leave per year. Time reported that 621 employees have taken more than 2,000 days of leave after the policy was introduced.
Other such as Swiggy and Byjus have also followed suit.
Among State governments, Bihar and Kerala are the only ones to introduce menstrual leave to women, as noted in the petition before the Supreme Court.
The Bihar government, then headed by Lalu Prasad Yadav, introduced its menstrual leave policy in 1992, allowing employees two days of paid menstrual leave every month.
Recently, on January 19, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced that the State’s Higher Education department will now grant menstrual and maternity leaves for students in universities that function under the department. Girl students will get the benefit of a lowering of the minimum attendance required to appear for examinations to 73% (from the existing 75%). Taking a cue from this, a Kerala school Labour India Public School, Kottayam, too decided to introduce a similar system for its students on January 24— on the occasion of National Girl Child Day.
The petition called the lack of menstrual leave in certain States as a violation of Article 14, saying that despite the fact that “women suffer from similar physiological and health issues during their menstrual cycles, they are being treated differently in different states of India.”
The petition sought a direction under Section 14 of the Maternity Benefit Act, which deals with appointment of inspectors and says appropriate government may appoint such officers and may define the local limits of jurisdiction within which they shall exercise their functions under this law.
Parliament has seen certain measures in this direction, with no success.
In 2017, MP Ninong Ering from Arunachal Pradesh introduced ‘The Menstruation Benefits Bill, 2017’ in Parliament. It was represented in 2022 on the first day of the Budget Session in the Lok Sabha, but was disregarded as an “unclean topic,” the petition says. Similarly, Dr. Shashi Tharoor introduced the Women’s Sexual, Reproductive and Menstrual Rights Bill in 2018, which proposed that sanitary pads should be made freely available for women by public authorities in their premises.
Now, Congress MP from Kerala Hibi Eden announced that he will be moving a private member’s Bill seeking the right to paid leave during menstruation for working women, menstrual leave for female students, and free access to menstrual health products, in the ongoing Budget session of the Parliament.
The Bill titled ‘The Right of Women to Menstrual Leave and Free Access to Menstrual Health Products Bill, 2022’ provides for three days of paid leave for women and transwomen during the period of menstruation. It also seeks to extend the benefit for students.
“According to research, approximately 40 per cent of girls miss school during their periods. Nearly 65 per cent said it had an impact on their daily activities at school and that they had to skip class tests and lessons as a consequence of discomfort, anxiety, shame, and concerns about leakage and uniform discolouration,” the Bill states.
- On February 24, the Supreme Court refused to entertain a PIL about menstrual leave for workers and students across the country, calling it a policy matter.
- On February 16, Spain became the first European country to grant paid menstrual leave to workers, among a host of other sexual health rights. Workers now have the right to three days of menstrual leave— expandable to five days— a month.
- In India, too, certain companies have brought in menstrual leave policies— the most famous example being Zomato in 2020, which announced a 10-day paid period leave per year. Time reported that 621 employees have taken more than 2,000 days of leave after the policy was introduced.