Author : Manuureet Singh (Army Institute of Law)
Co-Author : Sharanya Shrivastava (Army Institute of Law)
India as a country has seen quite a few changes in the popular perception of a lot of things regarded as social anathemas over the past few years. However, there are certain issues that have always been a taboo in our country and one such issue is of ‘Menstruation’. Menstruation is the recurring discharge of blood, cervical mucus, vaginal secretions, and endometrial tissue of non-pregnant females of humans and other animals (e.g. certain primates, shrews, and bats.) In humans, it usually recurs after every four weeks, or about a month; the word is a derivative of the Latin term menses, meaning months.
Historical records of paid menstrual leave can be dated back to World War II. Countries like Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Taiwan have received the issue well and have entitled female employees with menstrual leave. Italy has also proposed a Bill on paid menstrual leave. Historically, Indian societies have been marked with the feature of vibrant liberalism. An all girls’ school in Kerala would grant its students menstrual leaves as early as 1912. Recently, a couple of companies in India have individually introduced the policy of paid menstrual leave for their female employees. Culture Machine, a media start-up in Mumbai introduced the policy of giving women the first day of their period off; with the goal of making the workplace more women-friendly (popularly called the ‘FOP Leave’) in July 2017. This policy was also followed by a Kerala based media company ‘Mathrubhumi’.
Culture Machine also began an online petition asking the Ministries of Human Resource Development and Women and Child Development to formulate a law on the same. This was, however, not an isolated petition making such a request, and numerous organisations campaigning for this issue soon followed suit. Subsequently, the legislature decided to take action on the issue, and a bill was placed before the Parliament.
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.
Since the Maternity Benefits Act, 1961 was recently amended in 2017 to increase the maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks, there is concern that giving women multiple types of paid leave will cause resentment amongst men.
MENSTRUATION BENEFITS BILL, 2017
Ninong Ering, a member of Lok Sabha from Arunachal Pradesh, as a Private Member, proposed the Menstruation Benefit Bill, 2017, which laid down a proposal for two days of paid menstrual leave for every woman working in the public and private sectors. Currently, Bihar is the only state which provides two days of special leave every month to its female employees since 1992 called, ‘Special Casual Leave’.
Ering cited research conducted at University College, London, to assert that women don’t only face discomfort during menstruation but also see a decline in productivity on the first and second days of their cycle. He argues, therefore, that menstrual leave is desirable from the perspective of both female employees and their employers.
- The bill seeks to provide working women two days of paid menstrual leave every month. Women are given the liberty to decide which two days of the month they would like to take off for which they are not required to give any justification. This is done so that the women do not have to face the discomfort of disclosing their menstrual dates to their employers.
- It applies to women working in both the public and private sectors.
- The bill also seeks to provide better facilities at the workplace so that women may get adequate rest during menstruation.
- It also includes providing women the flexibility to take time off, and with options like working from home.
- The benefits of the bill are also extended to female students of Class VIII and above in government recognized schools.
MAJOR CONCERNS WITH THE BILL
If the bill has been welcomed warmly by many, it has also faced its share of backlashes. Individuals and organizations across the country have come up with various arguments against this bill, some of which have been mentioned herein:
- Some people see it as a regressive step that would limit women’s hard earned right to equal treatment at work. They feel that the enactment of this bill would create unfair prejudices in the minds of employers against hiring women, who will be seen to be less productive than their male counterparts.
- Most women are able to work up to their full potential even during their periods. So, for the handful of women who do suffer unbearable symptoms, the existing sick leave option is adequate.
- Menstrual leave policies might discriminate against men. This is because women would get additional days off every year.
Although the counter-arguments may make sense to some, yet, they are a reflection of the deep rooted gender bias in the society. Instead of viewing it as a means to make the workplace more accessible to women during the difficult days of menstruation, gender politicians, misogynists and chauvinists alike are sadly using the bill to deepen gender divides and fuel resentment in the minds of men.
SIGNIFICANCE OF MENSTRUAL LEAVE
- Menstruation is a natural biological process, not a disease or a disability.
- However, it can range from a slightly discomforting to a severely debilitating experience for women.
- Nearly 20% of women suffer from uncomforting symptoms. These may include cramps, nausea, fever and weakness during their periods.
- These are debilitating enough to hamper their daily activities.
- Some women also experience reduced emotional control and decreased concentration.
- Over 25 million women suffer from endometriosis. This is a chronic condition in which period pain is so bad that women nearly pass out from it.
- It is true that periods are weakening only for some women but the numbers are not insignificant to avoid a policy decision.
A 2012 study titled Dysmenorrhea by Pallavi Latthe, Rita Champaneria and Khalid Khan states:
“Dysmenorrhea (painful periods) is extremely common, and it may be severe enough to interfere with daily activities in up to 20 percent of women. One could also talk about the typical stereotypes that are associated with women and ask if the contention regarding ‘Menstruation’ would be the same if men had it too”.
Today, a substantial number of women face ancillary medical conditions associated with menstruation such as menorrhagia, endometriosis, fibroids, pelvic inflammatory disease, etc. Some of these conditions can be seriously disabling for the women who have them, and to expect normal, quality work from them while they are thus agonized is illogical. While surveying the popularity and demand of the bill among women in the workforce, many studies found that a lot of women are in fact against this bill. They fear that such provisions will do more harm than good for their careers, and will lead to alienation and increased hostility in the workplace. For many, the prospects of getting hired, securing a higher pay, bagging a huge promotion or making chair at board meetings will be much more unattainable than they are now. Their concerns are shamefully true. However, they can’t be blamed.
Laws like these are not only writings on pieces of papers to be read in courtrooms, they are instruments that challenge and revolutionize the current social system. While making more empowering laws, it is this mentality and undue bias that is targeted. Menstruation is an involuntary biological process which keeps the human race running. It needs to be understood that women neither willingly choose to undergo this process, nor welcome any related conditions or discomforts. The need of the hour is better socialization, empathetic education of the people, and promotion of compassion. If a woman is unable to perform well for reasons beyond her control, she should be allowed to take a leave to get adequate rest, without it creating any hindrance in her salary or work environment.
In a country like India, enacting a bill such as this may be a difficult step to take, but it is an important step nevertheless. The path may be challenging, but the end results of achieving higher degrees of compassion and sensitization towards female issues will truly be rewarding.