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Beyond Period Leaves: Bringing Menstrual Awareness to the Workplace

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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.

By Ananya Ray

Women are perceived as malfunctioning and their hormones [as] out of balance, rather than seeing the organization of society and work perceived in need of a transformation to demand less constant and disciplined productivity of a certain kind.

– Emily Martin, anthropologist. 

In a country like India, where menstruation is still a taboo topic, employers, organisations and companies are yet to come to terms with the fact that menstrual awareness is of utmost importance in their workplaces. The term ‘workplace’ is usually defined as a “location where someone works for their employer or a place of employment; it can range from a home office to a large office building or factory.” The work place, usually, is a hierarchical space, replete with social stratification with a hegemony of cis-gendered heterosexual males. 

The workplace can be a harsh space to navigate for gender minorities, owing to the blatant sexism, misogyny, queerphobia, and systemic hierarchies in such spaces. A percentage of these oppressed gender identities are menstruating individuals who are silenced and marginalised in the work space. Denied paid period leaves and shamed for raising this demand in the workplace, menstruators receive minimal support from their colleagues and employers. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. From dirty washrooms and lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities, to the lack of availability of affordable and appropriate menstrual hygiene materials, menstruators in the workplace face several obstacles and instances of harassment within this environment.

In a conversation moderated by Radhika Santhanam for The Hindu in August, 2020, after Zomato announced a new paid menstrual leave policy for its employees (35% of whom are women), journalist Barkha Dutt and activist Kavita Krishnan discussed the implications of this policy, indicating the differences of opinion in the feminist circles regarding the issue of paid menstrual leaves in workplaces. While a section of these feminist circles is opposed to this “gendering of the workplace” as “using biology against women to offer unequal opportunities and assignments.”, another section acknowledges the fact that women and men are “biologically different” and workplaces should be more sensitive to this. 

Representative image. Credit: iStock
Representative Image. Image Credit: iStock.

However, in order to create menstruation awareness in workplaces, one must look beyond the paid leave discourse and engage with the other issues at hand. Access to hygienic washrooms and affordable sanitary products should be considered a fundamental right for all menstruating individuals. In a survey on menstruating women by startup enthusiast Pallavi Barnwal, 67 percent of salaried women shared that their offices do not stock sanitary napkins at work premises. As little as 6.5 percent of women shared that their organisations provide paid access to sanitary napkins. 

In order to combat this unequal gap, one must first accept that the definition of workplace is different for different people. From brick kilns, construction sites, farms, factories, and mills, which predominantly involve heavy manual labour, to houses with domestic help, cooks, cleaners, and washerwomen; from marketplaces and shops to office cubicles, menstruators work in a diverse range of work places. Needless to say, installing clean washrooms and sanitary product dispensers in an air-conditioned office building is much easier than providing access to similar facilities in a farm or a construction site. Moreover, menstruators working in farms, kilns or construction sites are quite economically backward, in comparison to their counterparts working in offices. This crucial element of class, therefore, must not be overlooked while addressing menstrual awareness in the ‘workplace’.

Not only should the menstrual facilities be hygienic and affordable, they must also be accessible to persons with disabilities. In order to achieve this goal, there should be awareness and sensitisation drives in workplaces. There should be strict protocols against discrimination towards menstruators and the workplace must strive to be an egalitarian, inclusive, and sensitive space where menstruators feel comfortable to work.

The subject of menstrual awareness in workplaces, therefore, goes beyond the usual topic of paid period leaves which can often be used to tokenise menstruators in order to score inclusivity brownie points by companies. The important issues that need to be raised are the questions of accessibility, affordability, hygiene, acceptance, and sensitivity. Workplaces must be period-friendly so that menstruators can work in a space where they feel comfortable, creative and appreciated.

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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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