Recognise ‘this leave’ as a woman’s right

A more pronounced stand by political parties on the issue of menstrual leave will boost women’s rights and gender equality

Updated - May 03, 2024 10:01 am IST

Published - May 03, 2024 12:10 am IST

‘Many Asian countries have ended the prejudices and stereotypes around menstruation using legislation’

‘Many Asian countries have ended the prejudices and stereotypes around menstruation using legislation’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sometimes, elections throw up an acceptance of and solutions to deeply institutionalised gender biases and discrimination against women. In the run-up to the general election 2024, the election manifesto of the ruling political party in Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), has made a promise (under the topic “Women’s welfare”) that the “DMK will insist that the Union government enact a law providing menstrual leave to women, emphasizing the journey towards gender equality.” This promise has been made after a debate in the 17th Lok Sabha, in December 2023, on menstrual leave, but with no outcome.

Legislators and Bills

In December 2021, S. Jothimani, Congress Member of Parliament (MP) from Tamil Nadu, had introduced a Private Member Bill named, ‘Right to Menstrual Hygiene and Paid Leave Bill, 2019’, which sought to bring menstrual leave into the ambit of the rights of a woman, and a refusal of such leave into the domain of The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. It also sought to impose a penalty for refusal.

The Bill that envisaged menstrual rights for women stipulates that every woman shall be entitled to the right to self-perception of her menstruation, including but not limited to menarche (first menstruation), menopause, menstrual cycle, primary or secondary dysmenorrhea (menstrual pain). The Bill sought remedies in the form of: rights, including paid leave for three days; right to leave or absence for three days for students above class eight; right to 30 minutes rest twice a day during the menstrual period for employees/workers, and right to menstrual hygiene management facilities and equity for all women.

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Ninong Ering, who was a Congress MP from Arunachal Pradesh, introduced a private member Bill on menstrual leave in 2017 (the Menstruation Benefit Bill, 2017). This was followed by Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP from Kerala, introducing a similar Bill named The Women’s Sexual, Reproductive and Menstrual Rights Bill, 2018. Hibi Eden, Congress MP from Kerala, also introduced a private member Bill titled The Right to Women to Menstrual Leave and Free Access to Menstrual Health Products Bill, 2022.

The Supreme Court of India, early in 2023, refused to entertain a public interest litigation in Shailendra Mani Tripathi vs Union of India which sought direction to the state on menstrual leave; it was of the opinion that it is in the policy domain of the government. By December 2023, the central government refused to agree on such a policy, and the Bharatiya Janata Party manifesto for the general election 2024, the ‘Sankalp Patra 2024’, has made no mention of it. The Congress party’s manifesto for the general election 2024, the ‘Nyaya Patra’ has also not mentioned menstrual leave, but under the subject of “Health” has promised that “all employers shall mandatorily grant paid maternity leave for their employees”.

Progressive Indian States, Asian nations

History shows us that some States were ahead of the times. For instance, the Kerala Sahitya Academy published work, Kerala in 19th Century, mentions that Kerala was the first (in then Cochin State) to recognise the need for “ period leave” for students and allowed it during examinations in 1912. In a recent progressive attempt, Kerala has encouraged the use of other menstrual hygiene products and made them available for students. Bihar, in 1992, allowed government employees two-day menstrual leave. Kerala, in January 2023, introduced menstrual and maternity leave to all students above the age of 18. Other States must be reminded that the existing laws are not a hindrance for State governments to go ahead and notify the right to menstrual leave.

On the other hand, many other Asian countries have ended the prejudices and stereotypes around menstruation using legislation. For instance, Japan introduced menstrual leave in 1947, Indonesia in 1948, and South Korea. Taiwan and Vietnam have also implemented paid leave. In relation to the Asian countries, the progress made by the western world, except in Sweden and Spain, is still abysmal. Several international organisations have promoted menstrual leave as a women’s right. For instance, an International Labour Organisation report, in 2003, asked nations to recognise menstrual leave. The World Health Organization recognised a non-governmental organisation driven World Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28 from 2014. However, India’s new code on Social Security, 2020, passed by Parliament, which consolidated existing labour laws (yet to be notified), has not included the aspect of menstrual leave in its code.

Women labourers in the sugarcane fields of Maharashtra and agricultural labourers in Telangana have been documented to have hysterectomies as menstrual-related absences could endanger their livelihoods. It is time the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and laws governing industrial labour and other establishments recognise menstrual leave like the way progressive gig worker platforms such as Swiggy and Zomato have.

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Greater gender sensitivity needed

Policy solutions to gender inequalities that are defined by differentiated gender experiences of women owing to socio-cultural and biological reasons will not only ensure equity but also bring new social change. The instrumentality of public policy and discussions on menstruation also lies in shattering taboos and creating a gender-sensitive world that is open to issues which are hitherto considered to be clandestine by conservative-gendered social standards. In the political domain, recognition of the issue by political parties this election season will be a major step to promote women’s rights and gender equality.

Rehnamol Raveendran teaches political science at the University of Allahabad

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