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Menstrual Leave: A not-so-sacred issue

by Anvitha B V Gowda

Abstract: The debates on menstrual leave have been facing backlash from the prevailing conventions on menstruation that constantly exclude people of different genders who also menstruate. Menstrual leave is an advanced talk concerning menstruation to the nation that is even now trying to cope with period talk and sanitary pads out of black covers. This article addresses the issue surrounding the conventions of confining menstruation through the implementation of menstrual leave.

Taboos evolve steadily over time by taking new forms and shapes to fit the trend, some of which the society has moved past while some of which continue to affect the lives of many. One of them is the taboo surrounding menstruation. Conventionally, menstruators are forbidden to participate in the social and cultural aspects of their life. Upon centralisation of the issue of menstruation through the feminist movements, during the late twentieth century, a series of incidents around it resulted in the construction of an additional stereotype of menstruation. I would like to decipher the contemporary convention through an extract from a Chinese poem – “Even amidst fierce flames, a golden lotus is planted” – in the context of menstrual product campaigns which substitute the term tolerance for comfort. To illustrate, a tagline promoted by a popular sanitary pad company in India is “live your life to the fullest”. Firstly, it restricts the boundaries to a specific line of menstrual products that it deals with. In addition to that, they have entirely excluded people of different genders who menstruate which is quite ironic since the same company campaigned for a “period of pride” to normalise the conversations around periods and make people aware of the importance of period education in the country.

While the nation is still processing the normalisation of ‘the period talk’ for a decade or so, the proposition for menstrual leave might seem absurd to many. Some argue that menstrual leave would lead to discrimination against menstruators during recruitment and discrimination against men in the workplace. The campaign advocating to free menstruators from the stigma of confinement has been interpreted as menstruators experiencing comfortable periods. Contrary to such presumption, absences of women below the age of 45 follow a 28-day cycle which has been interpreted as evidence of increased female absenteeism (the data has excluded menstruators of another gender). This contributes to the negative effect on women’s earnings along with various other biological differences and socio-cultural implications. Implementation of menstrual leave might be difficult for small-scale organisations; however, it is important to educate ourselves and others about the difference in biological needs during different stages of life. Quoting Deepinder, Founder & CEO of Zomato, “it is our job to make sure that we make room for our biological needs, while not lowering the bar for the quality of our work and the impact that we create”.  

The issue of menstrual leave has been raised in the parliament and courts on various occasions, however, they all predictably focused on women and females only. The junior health minister told the Lok Sabha that “menstruation was a normal physiological phenomenon and only a small proportion of women/girls suffered from severe dysmenorrhea or similar complaints and most of these cases were manageable with medication”. The argument made by the Junior Health Minister in the above context is contentious as it caters to the attitude that silences the already oppressed menstruators. It satisfies my argument of the stereotypes that have developed over time expecting menstruators to balance their personal life, tolerate the pain and survive through the patriarchal notions of society to constantly prove their worth. The fact that menstruators are supposed to take medication to reach a “manageable” position during period days is a matter of concern. It highlights the fact that menstruators need to work harder than non-menstruators to achieve equality. The attempts to seek recourse through the judiciary have been unfruitful since the Supreme Court on the PIL seeking menstrual leave for women and female students has directed the issue back to the legislature since the policy dimensions involved in the matter are appropriate to be dealt with in the realm of the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development which may take an appropriate decision.

I agree that the mere implementation of menstrual leave initially would not do much to empower menstruators since the long-practised taboos persist within society. One of the reasons why menstrual leave has been debated against and opposed could be due to very little or no knowledge regarding menstruation since the educational reach in schools and colleges has been restricted to women and females only. Another reason is the encouragement of workaholic behaviour that pushes women to work twice as much as a man to achieve a similar position in work, personal life as well as in a social position. Providing menstrual leave is a step towards de-stigmatisation and it would encourage women to be expressive of their conditions concerning menstruation while simultaneously educating the non-menstruators regarding the condition of menstruation. Instances of painless periods for some menstruators should not be used as a basis to discriminate against menstruators who go through different stages of pain and uncomfortableness. However, a policy that can be possibly abused should be drafted with caution while being gender inclusive and favourable to the employees. The debate on menstrual leave being discriminatory to menstruators at the time of recruitment might seem realistic, however, the need for a change in the organisational policy to achieve equity among the employees should be considered. Alternative leave policies can be one of the ways through which the organisations can be inclusive of menstruators facing menstrual discomfort until menstrual leave is viewed as significant enough to be considered for discussion. 

Inclusivity in workplaces cannot be achieved overnight. However, experimentation is the key to analysing the importance of certain adaptations which might seem unnecessary, discriminatory, burdening or even inefficient at times. Menstrual leave among the majority of the population in India is still viewed as a luxury since the fundamental essentials such as hygienic toilet facilities (with decent water supply and soap) and menstrual products are still implausible. Although I am fully aware of the critiques of victimisation that the article might attract, the need to address this issue holds greater importance. The debate surrounding menstruation brings me to an essay by Gloria Steinem – If Men Could Menstruate. Gloria through the satirical essay leaves us questioning the stigma surrounding menstruation and men. Some of which I think we should engage with are: Would menstruation still be labelled ‘a curse’? Would it then be pure? Would it then be sacred? Would it then symbolise manhood? Would it still require great effort to prove what menstruators go through? Or any effort at all? The vulnerability would no longer be associated with the term menstruation and there would not exist a single debate against menstrual leave.

About the Author

Anvitha B V Gowda, a second-year BA LLB student at Jindal Global University, is interested in the intersectionality of gender, caste, sexuality and public policy.

Image Source: Beauty in Blood. Menstrual Blood, Artwork Title “Fist.” Wellcome Collection, JSTOR, Accessed 20 Mar. 2023.

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