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Menstrual Leave And The Case For Redesigning Workplaces For Everyone

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This post is a part of Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management in India. Click here to find out more.

Written by: Sanaya Patel

On 6th August, 2020, Zomato introduced paid menstrual leaves for womxn and transgender people at their organisation. What followed was extensive debate and writing about the implications of the move, on womxn as well as on workplaces.

In 2017, The Menstrual Benefits Bill ignited questions about whether any society could be feminist and still offer paid menstrual leave. While the Bill remains pending, the conversation must move forward. Menstrual leave, however, is only the starting point of the conversation about redesigning workplaces for everyone.

The Girl Who Cried Pain: Womxn And Medical Research

Medical science provides a hint at why menstrual leave is coming to the fore only in the 21st century: womxn’s healthcare is not taken as seriously as men’s healthcare. A study shows that after a coronary artery bypass graft (heavy duty heart surgery), men were administered narcotics while womxn were given sedatives to alleviate pain. Physicians consistently view women’s (but not men’s) symptom reports as caused by emotional factors, even in the face of positive clinical tests. Medical research even has a term for this: Yentl Syndrome, which describes the phenomenon of women being misdiagnosed and poorly treated unless their symptoms or diseases conform to that of men.

Data already reflects that menstrual pain can be almost as bad as a heart attack. Menstrual leave acknowledges that womxn may be sick, or unable to focus and perform optimally during menstruation. It acknowledges the need for different labour standards for people who bleed.

Representational image.

Labour Standards: India’s Attempt At Workplace Equity 

On 3rd August, 2018, Ninong Ering introduced The Menstrual Benefits Bill, 2017, in the parliament. The Bill mandates two days’ paid menstrual leave every month for womxn working in the public and private sector. Importantly, the Bill also recognises the right to assess one’s ability to work while menstruating (section 9) and allows for two 30-minute rest breaks during menstruation days (section 5).

Over 30,000 womxn working in Maharashtra’s sugarcane fields have had their uterus removed because they could not work while menstruating, but could not afford to take a day off for fear of losing their jobs. For many like these womxn, staying home is not an option. In the corporate sector, womxn who take sick leave are sometimes viewed as “weak”, or “not cut out” for a job. This reflects a longstanding culture that speaks of productivity only in terms of output and not in terms of efficiency. It also reflects our collective inability to create workplaces that enable womxn to thrive.

The Bill recognises that women are less productive if they are at work during menstruation, and data backs up this claim. A law that mandated monthly menstrual leave would grant much-needed protection and relief to those who fear losing their jobs due to their inability to function for a few days a month, such as womxn working in Maharashtra’s sugarcane fields.

A law that enforces menstrual leave would establish a fair standard of employment for womxn. It would acknowledge the needs of people other than men, for whom workplaces are designed by default.

The Bill, if brought into force, would also give life to the freedoms that our Constitution guarantees and protects for us. Article 15(3) allows the State to make special provisions for womxn and children. A law mandating menstrual leave would bring to life the vision of justice and equality envisioned by a progressive Constitution.

The down side of the Bill is that it has a narrow definition of womxn, and does not account for trans womxn. This must change. The definition must be broadened so that everyone who menstruates can avail of menstrual leaves.

Workplaces Should Be Designed For All Genders

Our understanding of the default design as the design for everyone and any changes in it as an accommodation of a specific gender’s needs are flawed.

Standard workplace infrastructure is designed keeping in mind an able bodied man: bathrooms do not have sanitary products for womxn, temperatures are often too cold for women, and office hours rarely account for people who run their own households.

Our understanding of the default design as the design for everyone and any changes in it as an accommodation of a specific gender’s needs are flawed. Representational image.

Another worrying aspect is our definition of productivity: if we are not working at the office and pulling long hours, then we are not getting enough work done. Studies already show that a four day work week lowers stress and does not affect output; on the contrary, it increases productivity. Workplaces are beginning to recognise that a well-rested employee is a valuable asset.

Menstrual leave is not different from sick leave in its purpose to give employees time to recover and come back to work. However, menstruation is not a sickness, but a regular, biological process for those who bleed. This is why it is more important to make a provision for menstrual leave distinct from sick leave: because we know that people who menstruate may be experiencing pain every month, and we must give them the option to decide if they need a day off to rest through the pain. We already know that health care boosts productivity. Research shows that more productivity is lost due to presenteeism (rather than absenteeism) during menstruation. The productivity argument then fails because menstrual leave would maintain output at work.

The argument that menstrual leave could be misused is fallacious: even the 2017 Bill recognises a woman’s right to determine whether they are unable to work due to menstruation. Let people decide for themselves whether they are able to work through menstruation. The argument of misuse can be applied to every law and policy; it doesn’t take away from the need to create these rights.

Workplace equity calls for a design that enables optimum productivity from all employees, and menstrual leave is only the starting point. Menstrual leave reflects that an employer is concerned about the well-being of their employees.

The most common fear that we have heard so far is that a law mandating menstrual leave would leave womxn out of the workforce rather than include them. This again must be weighed against the advantage of having happier, more productive employees. Menstrual leave is one way to make us feel a little more than cogs in the machine, and feel cared for and valued in an organisation. Employees are happier at workplaces that are equitable, which also means that there is a higher chance of retention.

We understand that for organisations with limited resources, introducing such leaves may not be a possibility right now. However, there are multiple actions that such organisations can take towards starting to build an equitable space: sanitary products being available at their offices, work from home options, allowance to switch field work days, and many more. These build a way for building capacity internally to introduce menstrual leave policies.

a woman working on her laptop in the office
The conversation about menstrual leave, like any other conversation about the need for equity and feminism, is uncomfortable, but that’s a good thing — this discomfort means that we’re unlearning and breaking away from our conditioning.

Workplaces That Work For All

The conversation about menstrual leave, like any other conversation about the need for equity and feminism, is uncomfortable, but that’s a good thing — this discomfort means that we’re unlearning and breaking away from our conditioning.

Menstruation, pregnancy and rearing families are some of the barriers that force womxn to either give up working or struggle through it if they cannot. For others, the struggle may be different: not having a ramp or an elevator for people with disabilities, or minimal provisions to enable the visually impaired to work.

We have designed our workplaces, by default, for able bodied men. We struggle with the idea of a world in which we do not have to struggle to keep up or thrive at work, when in fact, our right to livelihood balances precariously on the right to access this work in the first place.

A workplace that works for all makes provisions for persons with disabilities, has hygienic bathrooms, creches for children, rest periods for menstruating people, and open, respectful conversations between employers and employees about their needs while they’re at work. We must start imagining these workplaces and start talking about it if we want to learn the meaning of equity, and if we want our workforce to be diverse and inclusive.

The conversation about menstrual leave should ultimately lead to a hard look at our design for workplaces, parks, roads and public spaces, and should demand that we design to ensure that everyone has access to their right to live a full, productive life.

About the author: Sanaya Patel is the Chief Legal Officer at One Future Collective.

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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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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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