- The Menstruation Benefit Bill tabled by a Member of Parliament from Arunachal Pradesh earlier this year triggered widespread debate on the need for India to put in place a system of paid leave for all working women every month.
Bill in other countries & In India:
- Several countries have introduced a menstrual leave provision for their employees. As early as 1947, Japan passed a law allowing women with debilitating periods to take days off. Similarly, in South Korea, women were granted menstrual leave from the year 2001 onwards. Companies like Nike have also adopted similar policies.
- While not commonly known, in India, the Bihar Government has been offering two days of period leave to women employees since 1992.
About the Bill:
- It seeks to provide working women two days of paid menstrual leave every month.
- It applies to women working in both public and private sectors.
- The Bill also seeks to provide better facilities for rest at the workplace during menstruation.
- It includes providing women the flexibility to take time off, and with options like working from home.
- The benefits are also extended to female students of Class VIII and above in government recognised schools.
Against the Bill:
- Those who are not in favour of the policy argue that it will only prejudice employers against hiring women and lead to their alienation at work.
- They also believe that most women are capable of functioning at full capacity even during their periods and for the handful of women who do suffer debilitating symptoms, the existing sick leave option is adequate.
- Another concern that has been voiced on social media is that menstrual leave policies might discriminate against men as women would get additional days off every year.
While one can certainly argue against the need for a period leave policy, the problem with these arguments is that they only perpetuate age old biases and do little to take the gender equity discourse forward in a constructive and balanced manner.
- Firstly, just because some women can pull off remarkable feats their examples should not be used to discredit the experiences of other women.
- Secondly, those who are biased against hiring women do not need additional excuses. After all women continued to be laid off for demanding the implementation of maternity entitlements.
- Third, the fact is that women are biologically different. This is precisely why maternity leave is more common than paternity leave. Also, while it is true that periods are debilitating only for some women, the numbers are not insignificant. Further, estimates of the Endometriosis Society India suggest that over 25 million women suffer from endometriosis, a chronic condition in which period pain is so bad that women nearly pass out from it.
- Fourth, the reasoning that such a policy would discriminate against men is extremely illogical because it conveniently overlooks the fact that women do not enjoy the discomfort caused by periods.
- Moreover, women in India get paid much less than men, therefore even if they are offered a few days of extra leave, it would not compensate for their substantially lower wages. In fact, the World Economic Forum’s ‘Global Gender Gap Report’ ranks India a dismal 136 out of 144 countries for parity in wages between men and women.
- Thus, it would be worthwhile developing a policy that allows women the flexibility to take time off for periods should they need to while also providing them with options like working from home. Flexibility is important because unlike family leave policies which tend to be based on more universal experiences, women’s experience of menstruation varies widely.
- Of course, merely designing such a policy is meaningless. For its implementation to be effective, it must be introduced alongside measures to increase the participation of women in the workforce and make our workplaces more gender sensitive.
- Worryingly, the female workforce participation rate in the country has declined from 36 per cent of women employed in 2005-06 to 24 per cent in 2015-16. We need to urgently put in place and act on time-bound targets for reversing this decline.
- We also need to ensure access to separate toilets for men and women with facilities for disposal of sanitary napkins in all workplaces.
- Menstruation is a perfectly natural biological process, not a disease or a disability. However, it can range from a slightly discomforting to a severely debilitating experience for women.
- Therefore, instead of requiring women to adjust to workplaces designed for men, we need to transform our workplaces to be inclusive and sensitive to the needs of all employees. This will ensure an enabling environment in which both men and women can thrive and perform up to their maximum potential.