Indian food delivery company Zomato in one of its most revolutionary policy changes, introduced “period leave” for its menstruating employees, as an effort to combat the stigma that is attached around the issue. In a country where talking about menstruation is a taboo, the decision taken by Zomato seems to be a path breaking policy change. In India, millions of women and girls face discrimination and health issues owing to lack of awareness around menstruation thereby necessitating a national policy in this regard. However, there is always a debate around provision of menstrual leaves on whether it is discriminatory measure or a medical necessity.
Legal Developments so Far
The concept seems to have emerged from a south-Indian School in Kerala, that decided to give its female students, menstrual leave, as early as 1912. Menstrual leave policies are prevalent in certain Asian countries; i.e., in Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. In Indonesia, under Labour Act No. 13 in 2003, women were granted a right to two days of menstrual leave per month. Similarly, in Japan, South Korea and in Taiwan, women are granted menstrual leaves ensuring their menstrual health. As far as India is concerned, Ninong Ering, a Lok Sabha Member of Parliament from Arunachal Pradesh, had moved ‘the Menstruation Benefit Bill, 2017’, proposing that women working in the public and private sectors get two days of paid menstrual leave every month. Previously Cultural Machine Pvt. Ltd. had launched a petition online, advocating the need of menstrual leaves, so that it could be taken into consideration by the Ministry of Woman and Child Development and by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. A policy of this sort is necessary to give a boost to women empowerment in India. Bihar, being one of the pioneers in this field has had special leave for women for two days every month since 1992 called, ‘Special Casual Leave’.
Discriminatory Measure v/s Medical Necessity
Menstrual leaves are claimed to be discriminatory as it leads to women employees having more leaves to their male counterparts. However, women are biologically different from men, and therefore an equitable approach is supposed to be adopted for menstrual leaves. It has been contented that menstrual leave goes against Article 15(1) of the Constitution of India. It prohibits the state from discriminating on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. However, an exception to the same has been stated in Article 15(3) of the Constitution of India which empowers the state to make special provisions for women and children. This protective provision is a symbol of equity in a state like India where there has been a history of discrimination against women. Many legislations like Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, The Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act (2005), etc. which have been advocating women’s rights have been founded on the basis of this provision; and just like these enactments the provision of menstrual leaves would also not infringe upon Article 15(1) of the Indian Constitution.
Menstrual Health and hygiene have always been an issue in India. Menstruating women experience lack of private places at workspace to change menstrual materials, with the fear of staining and smelling constantly haunting them. In a country where poor toilet access is still an issue, lack of proper sanitation opens up more health risks for women in general. The problem however is accentuated for some occupational groups like that of construction workers. Construction sites generally lack proper toilet facilities, while female engineers might have the option to manage the situation with extended breaks but the same doesn’t exist for many other women labourers who suffer without toilet access.
The way forward
In 2016, John Guillebaud, professor of reproductive health at University College London, explained that period pain can be as “bad as having a heart attack”. In a study on Dysmenorrhea(2012) it has been highlighted that around 20 percent of women have severe period cramps so as to interfere with their daily activities. Other medical conditions associated with menstruation include menorrhagia, endometriosis, fibroids, pelvic inflammatory disease. Though generalizing such a proposition is not possible but it can’t be entirely denied that women experience unavowed amount of pain, unease and discomfort during their menstrual cycles. Given the difficulties and biological complexities that women go through, it is extremely necessary for such policy changes to be universally accepted and established.
In a study by National Sample Survey Office under MOSPI, it was revealed that the work force participation rate for females is 25.51 percent against 53.26 percent of males. Women constitute nearly half of the economically active population but their contribution to economic activity is far below the potential. Enhancing women’s participation in economic activities is crucial for poverty reduction, achieving economic prosperity and social development. In a country where the women workforce keeps decreasing, a menstrual policy is needed to metamorphose workplaces into providing our women a more flexible and a healthier work environment where such inabilities don’t turn out to be shackles in the feet of our womankind.
When women’s rights legislation like Maternity Benefit Act has furthered the idea of gender equality, gender inclusiveness and sensitization, the question remains as in why can’t we consider another biological process of menstruation. Not to forget where maternity is still a choice, menstruation is not. It is an inescapable monthly biological process that is painful which cannot be taken to be included within the domain of other sick leaves as menstruation is not an illness but a sui-generis biological process that needs to be addressed. It is the need of the hour to take into consideration these aspects to make the workplaces more gender inclusive thereby allowing women to achieve their full potential.
The views and opinions expressed by the writer are personal and do not necessarily reflect the official position of VOM.
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