Menstrual Leave Debate: Opportunity to Address Inclusivity in Indian Organizations.

AuthorBelliappa, Jyothsna Latha


While legislation in several countries across Asia (including Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea) promotes paid menstrual leave for women (1), the issue arose only recently in India when Culture Machine, a media start-up in Mumbai introduced a policy of giving women leave on the First day of (their) Period (popularly called "FOP Leave") in July 2017 (Blush Originals, 2017). Soon after, the Kerala based Media company Mathrubhoomi followed suit and private (unaided) schools in Kerala instituted a similar policy for teachers (NDTV, 2017).Culture Machine also began an online petition asking the Ministries of Human Resource Development and Women and Child Development to make FOP leave the law. At the time of writing this article a private member's bill has been tabled in Parliament proposing two days leave every month for menstruating women.

Media Debate

The media debate around FOP leave is the latest in a series of social and advertising campaigns that seek to address taboos around menstruation. In 2015 an online and offline campaign was launched, Happy to Bleed, which sought to break the secrecy and stigma against acknowledging one's period in public (Sanghani, 2015). It began in response to comments by a priest at the Sabrimalai temple reiterating the temple's policy of not allowing women of reproductive age to enter due to the concern that they might be having their period. Another campaign Pads Against Sexism initiated in Germany and taken up by students in Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi and other universities across the country attempted to break the secrecy around menstruation and address age old cultural taboos against discussing one's body in public (Sarfaraz, 2015).

The popular sanitary napkin brand Whisper recently ran an advertising campaign against taboos associated with menstruation (not playing sport, staying indoors) and questioning traditional superstitions such as banning a menstruating woman from touching pickles. The soon to be released Bollywood film Padman starring actor Akshay Kumar (a biopic of Arunachalam Muruganantham who created an award winning low cost sanitary pad for the Indian market) also addresses menstrual stigma. The film's marketing campaigns feature the producer and actors advocating open discussions about menstruation. Therefore, It is likely that men struation will continue to remain in public discourse in India.

Following Culture Machine's much publicized institution of FOP leave, there was intense debate in the media with some welcoming the move as an important step in supporting women who suffer from pain and discomfort during their periods while others decrying it as a regressive step that would limit women's hard-won right to equal treatment at work and inhibit their recruitment (as companies might view them as less productive than their male peers). Interestingly, both those for the legislation and those against claim that having one's monthly period is 'natural', and not a cause of embarrassment. Obviously, the arguments that they make following this claim are different.

Since the Maternity Benefits Act (2017) has recently been amended to increase maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks, there is concern that giving women multiple types of paid leave will cause resentment amongst men. Rachel Chitra (2017) writing in the Times of India and Somya Abrol (2017) in India Today quote several women (and men) from the corporate sector who oppose the policy arguing that it would undermine the cause of gender equality. Mitsu Sahay (2017) makes a similar argument on the popular digital platform 'Feminism in India'.

Well-known journalist Barkha Dutt (2017) strongly opposed the policy describing it as 'goofy' and 'paternalistic'. Claiming that she covered the 1999 Kargil war whilst having her period, she argued that the policy would prompt a backlash and undermine those women who are trying to enter professional roles to which they have been traditionally denied access: military combat for instance. Taking Dutt's point further it could be argued from a feminist perspective that the policy reinforces biological essentialism (2) which has been used to socially and economically marginalize women.

In the American context, similar arguments have been made (Zillman, 2017; Waldman, 2017). When a UK based organization, Coexist, instituted it last year commentators voiced concerns that it would inhibit recruitment of women and negatively affect productivity and profitability of organizations to give a large number of workers paid leave for twelve days of the year. One male commentator, news presenter, Philip Schofield suggested that women might misuse the policy (ITV, 2016). While the possibility of misuse might equally apply to sick leave and any form of flexibility granted to employees, the concern that it might prejudice employers against female employees is supported by research on flexible work options for women as discussed later.

Culture Machine's video promoting FOP leave shows its women employees citing severe cramps, nausea, headaches and emotions such as irritability and tearfulness associated with pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) as some of the symptoms that interfere with their performance at work (Blush Originals, 2017). One employee claims, "I'm a dictator on the first day of my period."; another states, "The worst thing someone can do [during my period] is talk." While any workplace might have (both male and female) dictatorial managers, associating such behavior with PMS furthers stereotypes about women's supposed emotionality, which have historically been used to limit their access to positions of responsibility and authority. Culture Machine's video thus strengthens patriarchal biases by positioning menstruating women as hysterical and irrational.

Those in favor of period leave argue that it is a mark of an organization's sensitivity to the needs of women employees. They cite chronic conditions such as endometriosis, adenomyosis and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) which are associated with severe and unmanageable pain and symptoms like heavy bleeding, irritable bowels and nausea. These arguments are supported by public health research: endometriosis affects about 10% of women in the reproductive age group (Rogers, 2009). The prevalence of polycystic ovarian syndrome is harder to pinpoint as different sources tend to suggest vastly different levels of prevalence in individual populations. For instance, in India different sources estimate it to range from 10% of the population to 20% (this divergence might be attributed to the existence of multiple types of criteria for diagnosis). PCOS is also said to be on the rise due to lifestyle issues (Pathak, 2015).

Even women who do not have chronic conditions suffer significant discomfort which is managed by over-the-counter pain medications, rest and home remedies. Many symptoms can be alleviated with rest or by avoiding physically demanding tasks (the amount of rest required differs from one woman to another). It is noteworthy that women who do not suffer from chronic conditions do not necessarily have equally painful periods during every cycle. Some cycles could be more painful than the others for various reasons including stress, changes in hormonal levels and diet.

Supporters of FOP argue that it addresses taboos around discussing menstruation. In India as in many other cultures there is a great deal of secrecy and shame associated with one's menstrual period. Girls often enter menarche without any knowledge of menstruation experiencing shame, anxiety and fear when they encounter their first period. Knowledge about menstruation and reproductive health continues to be limited well into adulthood. These factors are exacerbated by cultural taboos and practices associated with menstruation.

The media debate on FOP leave is framed around the concerns of upwardly mobile urban women. Shrada TK Lama (2017) points out that it does not address the vast majority of Dalit and non-Dalit women employed as unskilled and semiskilled workers who have limited access to menstrual hygiene products. Mitsu Sahay (2017) argues the debate does...

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