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Controversial Or Not, Women And Countries Need Menstrual Leave Policies. Here’s Why

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By Devas Boban, a student of PGP in Development Leadership at ISDM:

Menstrual leave is a type of leave where a woman has the option to take paid leave from her employer, if she is menstruating and is unable to go to work because of this. The concept of menstrual leave supposedly started in Japan in the early 20th century. History has it that in the 1920s, Japanese labor unions started to demand leave (seiri kyuka) for their female workers. By 1947, a law was brought into force by the Japanese Labor Standards that allowed menstruating women to take leave from work.

There have always been debates around policies regarding women’s rights. Going back into history, women have faced the brunt of Sati. They have also had to fight for issues like the right to cover their breasts in public, the right to widow-remarriage and against other discriminatory practices – many of which still continue in the form of unequal access to education, employment, wage parity in the workplace, etc.

Today, we do have reservations in buses and trains, maternity leaves for six months and so on. But despite all of this, women are also demanding menstrual leaves – a 1-day leave every month, in many cases. But is this really necessary? Can’t they bear with the pain for a few days? These are some of the commonly-asked questions on menstrual leave – and there have been arguments favouring both sides of the coin.

A few weeks ago, I came across an article on menstrual leaves. The first thought I had was: why are women asking for this sort of a leave? They should be able to handle the pain, right? After all, that’s how life is!

But then, I thought to myself – I have never had to experience such a thing, I have never had to bleed every month for 4-5 days. Since I don’t even know how to relate to such a pain, how can I judge the degree of pain a woman has to endure and the capacity she may have to cope with it? To engage with this dilemma, I thought of talking to some of my friends on the topic.

Most of my female friends shared stories of their misery during their menstruation cycle. On the other hand, there were a number of women who said that they didn’t feel any difficulty while going for work during their periods. Considering the dichotomy of opinions, I decided to enquire more about this issue.

Given the fact that I had access to strong views and opinions at the Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), I decided to engage with my peers.

Some of the arguments which came forth against menstrual leave were:

1. Difficulty for organisations to create alternative options for getting work done. If women take leaves without prior notice, with periods as a reason, the others in the team and the work they do will suffer.

2. With each woman taking a leave once every month, the productivity of the organisation will come down.

3. It will re-enforce negative cultural norms. For instance, in certain cultures, during menstruation, women are not allowed to enter particular places, go out of their houses, etc. It is feared that the concept of a menstrual leave will reinforce such negative norms.

4. There is always a chance for women to misuse this leave, thereby promoting escapism.

5. It’s also likely that organisations may tend to hire more men than women, because hiring women will lead to losses for the organisation, considering the number of days they’ll work.

6. There are women who can ignore the pain when they are involved in some physical activity or work. A menstrual leave does not promote this practice of healthy physical activity which many women may get at their workplace.

7. Providing menstrual leave may cause discomfort among some men, which may perhaps lead to incidents of workplace harassment.

There were also arguments which supported the provision of menstrual leave policies. They were as follows:

1. Menstrual leave does not make women weaker. Men and women are biologically different. A few women may not be uncomfortable during their menstruation. However, accepting this fact should not lead to the exclusion of the majority women who really struggle during their periods.

2. Many organizations lack an adequate number of toilets, while some have common toilets for men and women. This makes the situation more miserable for menstruating women.

3. Productivity levels actually go up according to the state of mind women have towards their employer.

4. Menstrual leave is optional. But it’s definitely an equitable approach, considering the biological difference between men and women.

5. It will encourage the participation of more women in the country’s workforce.

6. Contrary to popular perception, it will actually reduce menstrual taboos by addressing it. Many women feel uncomfortable even while discussing it. On the other hand, this policy will enable women to ask for menstrual leave.

7. Some of the people taking part in the conversation stated that in most cases of women taking menstrual leave from companies, the work is divided equally among the other men and women employees. So, the point that only men suffer seems to be a bit presumptuous and invalid.

8. The argument that women will misuse this particular kind of leave also seems to be a bit skewed. In that sense, every leave, including a sick leave, can be misused by men and women. Ultimately, the organisation has to trust the employee that she won’t be taking this leave for her leisure

9. A menstrual leave is not a sick leave. Menstruation is not a sickness – it’s a biological function unique to women.

10. There are always critics when it comes to policy changes, especially when it comes to women’s rights or an issue as basic as maternity leave. Regarding men who feel uneasy with women being granted menstrual leave, they need to respect the biological differences between men and women – as do we all.

Menstrual leave is controversial because it is seen by some as a criticism of women’s work efficiency or as sexism. However, menstrual leave policies have already been implemented in many places. Countries like Japan, Taiwan, several provinces in China, Indonesia and South Korea have already implemented menstrual leave policies for women.

Nike has also had a menstrual leave policy for its employees since 2007. In India, a couple of companies from Mumbai – Cultural Machine and Gozoop – have decided to provide paid leave for its women employees. Women employees in government services in Bihar can avail two days of leave in a month for this purpose, is in addition to all the other leaves they are eligible to.

Women have always had to plead for her rights from birth – not to get killed in the womb, to get educated, to get jobs and equal pay, to travel safe – and the list continues. I am not sure if the organisational design, especially the leave structure, would have been the same if men menstruated and not women.

Implementing the menstrual leave policy doesn’t take away the pain women suffer. But it will definitely make the work environment more conducive to women.

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Featured image used for representative purposes only.

Featured image source: BLUSH/YouTube
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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