Menstrual Leave Will Not Solve The Problem Until We Become Feminists

India is one of the few countries that offers 6 months of paid maternity leave and we are also contemplating on mandating menstrual leave. Wow! We are such a progressive nation. But wait, what’s the percentage of women participating in the labour force in the country? A dismal 26%! What are we doing wrong?

I know the title will irk both the sides but before making any judgment, hear me out. Following are three incidents that made me rethink about my stand on women-friendly legislation in India:

Incident 1: A friend of mine who just got married faced a hard time getting a job. She has a strong resume and good work experience. This had never happened to her before. When she tried to get honest feedback from an employer through a friend, she found out that even though she passed all the criteria for the position, her marital status, with no kids, was a red flag. Management believed that since she was married, she might plan a kid soon and would take a fully paid maternity leave, hanging the project in between. This assumption on the part of the future employer was not only wrong but also points to the corporate apathy towards women empowerment in the country. Add menstrual leave to it and a larger section of women would be subjected to this bias.

Incident 2: It was my first job after MBA as a manager in a big corporate office. I was given a large team with 50% female employees. The first advice I received from the previous manager during knowledge transfer was, “It is difficult to manage a team with so many women. Being a woman yourself, you would get a lot of leave requests for monthly problems. You have to be strict with them else you would be deemed as being partial and everyone would ask for paid holidays.” This was the moment I realized how masculinised our workplaces are.

Incident 3: My personal story was not very different. A few years back, I had a brush with my own demon – Endometriosis. The happy periods turned into ugly episodes of pain. Every month, I would experience my uterus exploding and all I wished for was 2-3 days off. For the next few months, I faked fever, stomachache, even food poisoning. When I could not take it any longer, I decided to speak to my manager. My manager was so uncomfortable discussing the issues that he just gave a blanket approval on my leaves for upcoming months.

At the end of the year, the entire credit of running my team successfully was given to my assistant. Not only was my contribution totally ignored, but I was also asked to acknowledge my falling performance. Was I really thankful to my assistant for stepping up in my absence? I was. Did it mean I was ready to give away my years of hard work? Absolutely not!

Another point that comes across my mind is that menstrual leave may take care of the needs of women having jobs in regulated sectors (only 26% to be precise) but what about the women who are in non-regulated sectors, like domestic workers, caretakers etc. and women who do unpaid caregiving work? Their work involves a lot of physical strain and demands for some time off during periods. But in a society which doesn’t even talk about menstruation, it is a far-fetched dream.

Long story cut short; unless our society sees the bigger picture and doesn’t limit a woman’s worth to being attached to a certain role, none of these laws would be effective.

The corporate culture sees value in attendance, undivided attention and working round the clock. What they ignore is the well being of the employees and their families, leaving this work to be taken care of by others, mostly women – wife, mother, maid, nanny, etc.

The society sees value in how effectively a woman can manage her family, how clean her house is, how many sacrifices she makes, how pious her image is, etc. Any discussion that makes her appear a normal human being or tarnishes the idea of perfect beauty like body image, menstruation, sex, body odor, body hair, anything related to the female body is termed as an attack on Indian culture and tradition.

We talk of one glass ceiling but to reach that ceiling, women need to swim across these two channels. And the advice we give them – man up! On one side, we are waiting for the men to understand issues women face and on the other hand, we reward women for acting like men (actually the stereotypical definition of men) without giving up their own responsibilities. The questions we need to ask here are

  • How are men being sensitised about issues like menstrual hygiene and mental health of women?
  • Where is the room for women to take a break?

We know the water cycle, the thermodynamics and what not. Still, as a society, we have failed to establish the fact that the balance between work and family is being maintained by both men and women and it is unfair to credit one for everything and undermine the other for not doing enough. It is a system failure which makes all the genders suffer from inequality, insensitivity, ignorance, and indifference. Unless we break these silos and consider the entire ecosystem, giving women maternity and menstrual breaks is like giving someone a spoon without giving them food.

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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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