Inclusivity at the Workplace: The Case of Menstrual Leaves

    • By,
      Shivani Kulkarni – Student, Kautilya

Recently, the Indian Supreme Court declined to consider a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) last year that sought menstruation leave for workers and students across the country. The whole debate started as a reaction to remarks made by a priest at the Sabrimala temple restating the establishment’s policy of prohibiting women of reproductive age from entering due to possible menstrual cycles. Menstruation is a natural biological process, but it has long been associated with stigma and other taboos. However, there has been a growing awareness in recent years of the importance of addressing the basic needs associated with menstruation and the difficulties it presents. This blog will examine the arguments for and against India’s menstrual leave laws while also outlining a potential solution.

The Significance of a Menstrual Leave Policy

Menstruation has implications that go beyond biological factors. It affects billions of women globally in both social and economic ways. Menstrual leave is justified, in part, because research by the Endometriosis Society of India shows that 25 million Indian women have endometriosis. This results in extreme pain during a woman’s menstruation, inefficiency, and exhaustion both physically and mentally. Even women without chronic illnesses can experience significant discomfort, but it can be managed with rest, over-the-counter painkillers, and home remedies. Nations like South Korea, Japan, and Indonesia have come to understand the significance of menstruation leave policies. Some Indian states, such as Bihar in 1992 and Kerala in 2022, through their Act of “The Right of Women to Menstrual Leave and Free Access to Menstrual Health Products Bill,” have implemented menstrual leave policies. Nevertheless, there is a severe lack of a unified national policy, which may prevent widespread access. Similarly, The positive effects of menstrual leave include helping women become more focused and capable by enabling them to handle better the emotional and physical symptoms associated with their periods. For instance, some articles highlight that women who took menstrual leaves felt more productive when they returned to their offices, Also reducing absenteeism.

Challenges and Concerns.

Menstrual leave policies need to be promoted more than ever, but there are also some obstacles. Opponents of the idea assert that there is fear that offering women different types of paid leave will incite men to be hostile . Furthermore, the idea of menstruation leave could be seen as a pathological illness rather than a physiological occurrence (as noted in a group discussion on the “Menstruation Benefit Bill 2017,” a private member’s bill that former MP Shri. Ninong Ering introduced in the Indian Parliament). Consequently, it fostered the notion that menstrual leave ought to be decided upon based on a doctor’s recommendation. The policy was strongly opposed by well-known journalist Barkha Dutt, who described it as “paternalistic” and “goofy.” She claimed to have covered the 1999 Kargil war while on her period. She said that the policy would hurt and cause backlash for women who are trying to enter fields like military combat, which women have historically not been allowed to enter. A feminist would build on Dutt’s argument by arguing that the policy maintains biological essentialism, which has been used to marginalize women in the social and economic spheres. The same potential for abuse exists with sick days and menstruation leaves, which could result in a dysfunctional workplace. In Zambia, women may lose their jobs if it is discovered that they “misused” their menstrual leave by going shopping or working on the farm. Addressing any potential gaps in an organization’s legal compliance may become necessary as the menstrual leave policy is put into effect.

The Legal Conundrum

The Menstruation Benefit Bill was presented in 2017 to improve menstrual hygiene and offer paid leave to women in India. It also sought to grant two days of leave to female employees and students. Nonetheless, there is still uncertainty surrounding the bill’s passage. The idea of a menstrual leave policy is also proposed in the Draft National Menstrual Hygiene Policy 2023, which is still in the works and has not yet been finalized and passed. Consequently, a few startups, such as Zomato and Gozoop, have implemented menstrual leave policies in their offices and have observed positive outcomes.

Way Forward

The introduction of wellness leave, which recognizes that all employees may occasionally need time off for reasons other than illness, is the solution to the aforementioned issue. Menstrual awareness programs need to be made available. One such program is TATA Steel, which offers female employees counseling services for their overall health. To implement evidence-based policies on menstrual leave, it is recommended to encourage further research and dialogue on menstrual health. Organizations such as the Menstrual Health Research Initiative are disseminating their findings to support advocacy efforts.

In conclusion, even though menstrual leave has a positive influence on women’s lives, there is a severe issue with the absence of a national policy on this subject. The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has collaborated with relevant stakeholders to draft the “Menstrual Hygiene Policy,” which is a positive move and a first step towards acknowledging women’s rights; it will also encourage debate and have a long-term impact on the policy’s viability. Similarly, India’s legislative implementation of a menstrual leave policy will advance inclusive workplaces and uphold an individual’s dignity and well-being.

*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.