The period leave debate: deserving or not?

Spain approved menstruation leave on February 16; Kerala announced it a month earlier, on January 19. But then the conversation has stalled again. Experts weigh in on the questions we should be asking and why each debate has two sides to it

Updated - March 10, 2023 12:56 pm IST

Published - March 03, 2023 12:20 pm IST

When companies could no longer sshhh it and send women away to the medical room each time they needed a pad, they began to look at menstrual leave. 

When companies could no longer sshhh it and send women away to the medical room each time they needed a pad, they began to look at menstrual leave. 

The last decade or so has seen the building up of the menstrual movement — of women speaking about their experiences publicly, of blood being made ‘seen’, of men learning to say “period” without their voices dropping to a whisper. You know something that flew under the radar has become mainstream when different strands of society, both groups and individuals, throw their weight behind it.

In February this year, the Supreme Court refused to issue a public interest litigation on menstruation leave. “It’s our collective responsibility,” advocate Shailendra Mani Tripathi, who filed the PIL said in an interview to ET Now, reflecting the thought that health needs to be supported at various levels, from the State to the family unit. In fact, the World Health Organization says governments “should make schools, workplaces and public institutions supportive of managing menstruation with comfort and dignity”.

In India, menstrual leave is not a new ask, with Bihar having introduced it in 1992, and the Menstruation Benefits Bill tabled in Parliament in 2017. It has faced plenty of criticism, too. TV journalist and author Barkha Dutt wrote in The Washington Post: “First-day period leave may be dressed up as progressive, but it actually trivialises the feminist agenda for equal opportunity, especially in male-dominated professions. Worse, it reaffirms that there is a biological determinism to the lives of women, a construct that women of my generation have spent years challenging.”

Television journalist and author Barkha Dutt

Television journalist and author Barkha Dutt | Photo Credit: Murali Kumar K.

Now, the voices for legislation around it have grown, set against the cultural upheaval the subject has seen around the world. Artist Ingrid Berthon-Moine, in her series of 12 portraits titled Red is the Colour, showed women wearing their menstrual blood as lipstick. Kiran Gandhi ran a marathon without a tampon or a sanitary pad — free bleeding her way to the finish line.

A boy walks past a wall mural depicting female menstruation at a school for underprivileged children in Guwahati

A boy walks past a wall mural depicting female menstruation at a school for underprivileged children in Guwahati | Photo Credit: PTI

When companies could no longer sshhh it and send women away to the medical room each time they needed a pad for a sudden period onset, they began to look at menstrual leave. Bigger corporate organisations still look away pretending periods don’t happen, their large machinery slow to react to any societal change unless forced by the government. A few perky startups like Zomato and Byju’s have rushed to implement it, even as Bihar and Kerala have legislated on it.

Still, there are many questions left unanswered. Questions like, will small companies avoid hiring women? Will women’s productivity really go up? How will domestic workers and the informal workforce access this? Are we only addressing young women and not those who go through years of perimenopause that comes with its own set of problems? Here, we put them to the experts and those with the lived experience of bleeding, to give us a few answers.

“In the backdrop of a number of provisions which have been made to protect and respect the dignity of a woman — such as amending the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, to increase paid leave for pregnancy from 12 weeks to 26 weeks, and making provisions for a crèche facility at every workplace that employs a certain number of women — giving a recess [paid menstrual leave] of two to three days in a month to a woman who can’t take care of herself alone in a dignified way, is a crucial step.”Shailendra Mani TripathiThe New Delhi-based advocate who filed the menstruation leave petition

Aditi Gupta

Aditi Gupta | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Period leave is necessary; it normalises menstruation and conversations around it

“The moment we start talking of menstrual leave, people say it will affect women’s employability, their productivity, etc. At Menstrupedia, we have had period leave for the past five years or so, and it hasn’t affected our work or competence in any way. When an organisation grants menstrual leave, it works in their favour because it shows that they care for their employees. It’s just like providing sick leave or a resting room. I also want to focus on the absence of vocalising about period pain. What happens is, we all grow up with this idea that suffering pain is the path to a woman’s greatness. So, I think my mother is great because she suffered so much every day, and then also did all the work. We teach young girls by virtue of our pain and suffering, and thus we don’t help them be vocal about it. If a girl complains about her pain, we start to doubt her. We see this with doctors, and at home too.”

Aditi Gupta, Ahmedabad

Co-founder, Menstrupedia, a startup that educates people about periods

Dr Usha Sriram

Dr Usha Sriram | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Encourage discussions on what is healthy

“If you do have a very painful period or experience heavy bleeding — about 10% to 20% do have disabling dysmenorrhea — once you know there’s medical help, you can access it. Education is, therefore, important. Endometriosis is also being diagnosed more, and can contribute to a painful period. If medicines don’t help, women should be able to access menstrual leave. It’s difficult to cull it out of sick leave because we’re talking two or three days a month, and you need your sick leave for other illnesses, too. Period leave needn’t be a blanket for all women either, just for those whose monthly cycle can be disabling and distressing. Otherwise, it will lead to stereotypes of women being weak, and we don’t want to leave the door open for discrimination after all we have achieved.

Another conversation I am hoping it will bring up is privacy and cleanliness. So many girls say they don’t go to school on the days they have their periods not because of pain or bleeding but because they can’t use the bathroom. It’s also important to remember that we cannot equate menstrual leave with maternity leave. The latter is a must because we are also promoting exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months.”

Dr Usha Sriram, Chennai

Endocrinologist with a special interest in reproductive endocrinology

Indira Jaising

Indira Jaising | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Menstruation leave is not medical leave

“[When representing Bindu Ammini, who entered the Sabarimala temple in Kerala] I made the connection that putting out menstruating women was a form of untouchability. I had seen it in my own home. Married women were not allowed to enter the kitchen during their period. When Bindu entered the temple, the priests ordered a special puja to cleanse the “pollution”. How could the custom be tolerated in a country that had outlawed untouchability? For several years, I ran an all-woman chamber. I know women ask for leave during their period so the demand for menstrual leave is not new to me. At the same time, it’s important to understand it’s not ‘medical leave’. This is a natural bodily phenomenon. But I worry that if such leave is granted, employers may not recruit women [a concern that the Supreme Court highlighted when it dismissed the PIL]. That does not mean we don’t lobby for it; only that it must be accompanied with strict no victimisation conditions.”

Indira Jaising, Mumbai

Lawyer and activist

Sinu Joseph

Sinu Joseph | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Let women decide how to manage their period

“We need to move away from the superficial rights-based approach, and talk about the biological need for menstrual leave. During periods, the levels of hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone dip, resulting in low energy. If women rest during that time, it can improve their overall health and productivity, thus reducing the need for sick leave. If implemented with this awareness, menstrual leave will lead to a positive increase in the hiring of talented women.

These days we talk about ‘sustainable menstruation’. Sustainable should mean that a woman depends on no outside intervention to manage her period, and causes no environmental damage in the process. If the government insists that women should work even during menstruation, it needs to provide chemical-free, safe products and environment-friendly disposal methods as well. The easier way is to simply allow menstrual leave and let women manage their period.”

Sinu Joseph, Bengaluru

Menstrual educator and author of Rtu Vidya

Sujata Sriram

Sujata Sriram | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Menstrual leave is very condescending

“I don’t think it’s a woman who thought up period leave, and the man probably thought he’s doing something nice for women. I think it’s very condescending. And it’s unnecessary sharing of private details. Sure, some women have a difficult time, but that’s what casual leave and sick leave are for. And if it’s particularly bad, there is probably an underlying medical issue that needs to be addressed.

If we’re really looking at women-friendly measures in the workplace, then let’s address the basics: do we have bathrooms with dustbins? How often are these dustbins cleaned out? Is there enough space in the bathroom for us to change? Is there toilet paper?

What are you normalizing — that it’s OK to be absent from work because it’s ‘those’ days of the month? Are all women expected to take menstrual leave? If I don’t, how will I be viewed by other women — as someone betraying the cause?

It’s also how we regard menstruation. The celebration of menstruation and fertility is something we’ve forgotten, rather than talking about it as something that is a nuisance.”

Prof Sujata Sriram, Mumbai

Psychologist and Dean, School of Human Ecology, Tata Institute of Social Sciences

Ankesh Chaurasia

Ankesh Chaurasia | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Cost to company is compensated by increase in productivity

“In 2018, we noticed that one of our female employees was in acute discomfort during her period and it occurred to us that women across the board must be suffering the same way. We realised that period leave is offered in several countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. We approached Ninong Ering, then an MP from Arunachal Pradesh [who had tabled the menstrual benefit bill in 2017], to table another one. It was introduced in Parliament in 2018, but was not accepted. In March 2018, we organised a round table discussion with MPs, journalists, activists, and representatives from the HR industry to create a buzz around #Right2Rest. We faced opposition from some who believed it would come in the way of female employability. But we noticed that in our company, the productivity of female employees increased by 30%-40%. Any cost to the company was compensated by this increase. This year, on our fifth anniversary, we announced free PR services for a year to companies that want to offer menstrual leave.”

Ankesh Chaurasia, Gurugram

Co-founder and chief marketing officer, Public Relations & Advocacy Group (PRAG), the first PR firm to offer menstrual leave

Namita Bhandare

Namita Bhandare | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

What is the value of your human rights?

“Sick leave is available to everybody. But the fact is that only one gender menstruates. I think more than 50% experience very painful periods, which can last for two or more days. Everybody needs to ask, what is the value of your human rights if you are going to insist that someone who is in excruciating pain must come to work just to sign the roster. Whether she is washing your dishes at home or working in a tech company. For me, paid menstrual leave is a no-brainer. Would you argue that women shouldn’t get maternity leave? That would be an absurd position to take.”

Namita Bhandare, New Delhi

Independent journalist who writes on gender issue

Positive obligation to create equal workplaces

“The presumption that productivity will be harmed by menstruation leave is based on a male standard of the workplace, one that structurally discriminates against women. It is also based on a structure that does not recognise the need for care and support. That does not fit in with the understanding of substantive equality as envisioned by Article 15(3) of the Constitution. Substantive equality means that a mere formal declaration of equality is not sufficient; what is required is a structural change against systems of historic disadvantage, exclusion, and stereotyping. Thus, the state owes a positive obligation to create equal workplaces. This argument extends to not just period leave, but across the board for all women, including those in the informal sector, many of whom are multiply marginalised.”

Surbhi Karwa, Sonipat

Lawyer/ BCL graduate, University of Oxford

Remove awkwardness around the idea of menstruation

“We don’t go by preconceived ideas that women do better in some sectors and men in others — we have women doing great in tech; Akriti Chopra [the co-founder of Zomato and now the Chief People Officer] was one of the youngest CFOs that India had seen. So, culturally it was easy to pivot to a period leave construct. Employees can log in 10 days in a year, and since we started the initiative in August 2020, we’ve had about 1,549 employees apply for more than 8,000 period leaves. We also have an emoticon on Slack, where most of our internal communication happens, that people add to their status to denote ‘It’s that time of the month’. The feedback has been positive, and we are seeing a lot of people using it. The whole point was to remove any awkwardness around the idea and to encourage all our employees [male and female] to be comfortable talking about it.”

Vaidika Parashar, Gurugram

Communications, Zomato

With inputs from K.S. Sudhi, Amit Bhelari, Julie Merin Varughese, Divya Gandhi, Hiran Unnikrishnan, Krishnadas Rajagopal, Rosella Stephen, and Surya Praphulla Kumar

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