Zomato’s declaration of a paid period leaves policy, allowing women and transgender individuals to take up to 10 days off per year, has triggered considerable debate in India. This was inevitable, since menstruation is still an extremely taboo topic in the country. While Zomato’s move has been largely hailed as positive, certain individuals – Barkha Dutt in particular – disagreed with it.
This disagreement does not, however, take away from the fact that period leaves are an absolute necessity in Indian workplaces. This article will explore the reasons why menstrual leave at the workplace needs to be as much of a fixture as maternity or sick leave, and why this would give working women a huge impetus towards true empowerment.
Examples of Period Leaves in India
The debate on period leaves is not new to India. In January 2018, Ninong Ering, a Congress MP and Lok Sabha Member of Parliament from Arunachal Pradesh moved a private members’ bill – ‘the Menstruation Benefit Bill, 2017.’ It sought to grant women working in public and private sectors two days of paid menstrual leave every month, as well as provide better facilities at workplaces during menstruation.
On a more local level, a girls’ school in Kerala has been granting female students period leaves since 1912. On state level, Bihar has granted a two-day period leave for women since 1992 called, ‘Special Casual Leave.’
Why do Women Need Period Leaves in the First Place?
To answer this question, let’s start with some hard facts.
In 2016, reproductive health professor John Guillebaud told Quartz that patients have described cramp pain as “almost as bad as having a heart attack.” In 2018, gynaecologist Jen Gunter stated that the comparison was inaccurate – it would be more accurate to compare menstrual cramps to being in labor. Dysmenorrhea (painful periods) is the most commonly reported menstrual disorder. More than 50% of menstruating women experience pain for 1–2 days a month.
Let that sink in for a bit. More than 50% of women experience a condition that causes incredible pain and discomfort, and yet the necessity of menstrual leave is being debated.
Additionally, women are said to be made to wait longer in emergency departments and are less likely to be given effective painkillers than men. All signs point to the fact that menstrual health is not taken seriously, even though it is something that almost half the global population must deal with.
In light of the factors mentioned above, granting menstrual leave should be a no-brainer. And yet, it isn’t.
Why are Period Leaves so Controversial?
As mentioned earlier, Zomato’s paid period leave policy has faced opposition from both men and women alike. Women opposing this, in particular, have raised the point that a policy of leave due to periods will further establish bias against women in the workplace. It is possible that taking menstrual leave will be viewed as either an excuse for women to take days off or proof that women are “weak” and need concessions men do not require. This might, in their opinion, foster more gender discrimination in the form of hiring bias, lower pay and infrequent promotions as well as lesser participation in leadership roles.
If these worries seem justified, that is where the conversation needs to begin. Look at it another way: if someone has a broken leg and needs to take time off for it, would they be considered “weak” or “looking for an excuse”? No.
The only difference is that menstrual cramps occur every month, while a broken leg does not. However, the fact that it is a recurring condition does not make it any less painful or debilitating. Expecting women to function despite enduring such pain is basically punishing them for having a female biological framework.
The Necessity of Period Leave in India
The question of female empowerment has been at the forefront of India’s political and social narrative. Every single day, more people are questioning patriarchal ideas and practices. Women are being recognized for their accomplishments in every domain, and yet they still have to cover up a normal bodily function every month.
In the absence of period leaves, women have to take sick leave because of period pain. For those with a chronic condition, this is unfair because they lose out on sick days they might need in case of unpredictable health issues that both men and women alike may face.
Since period pains occur every month, they cannot be considered a regular illness. Hence, women need to be able to take paid period leaves without losing out on sick days. They should not have to have fewer sick days simply because they unfortunately suffer from pain they have no control over.
Without period leave in India, we are essentially asking women to tolerate excruciating pain in silence just so that they can fit in and not be considered “weaker” or “inferior.” Women do not choose to experience this pain, and therefore they should not be forced to function while being brutalized by it.
When women can take sick leave because of period pain, they aren’t just able to enjoy healthier lives. They are also able to become more productive members of the workforce, because no one gets decent work done when they are in agony.
With companies like Nike offering paid menstrual leave since 2007, it is about time the rest of the world catches up. India, in particular, can position herself as a true haven for female empowerment by establishing leave due to periods. It will signal that women’s health is a major priority.
However, such a policy must also be accompanied by active conversation of why the move is necessary, and why it is not a “concession” for women. Lawmakers must ensure that the policy does not give people an excuse to discriminate against women.
It is important to remind ourselves that when we talk about equality at the workplace we mean equality of all working conditions for men and women and not just those that can be accepted and ignored depending on convenience. The fact that a debate on period leaves exist indicates the stigma around the subject is beginning to dissipate. There is a long way to go, but the steps are being taken in the right direction. Now, what remains to be seen is if India can walk all the way to true equality for women.