An intense debate is raging on my timeline ever since an Indian media company offered ‘paid menstrual leave’ — a day off during periods — to its women employees. The company has also launched an online petition calling on the Ministry of Woman and Child Development and the Ministry of Human Resources Development to make menstrual leave a mandatory policy for all workplaces.
There are many women in the country, like in the rest of the world, who face severe cramps and pain on the first day of their periods. In fact, some countries have adopted menstrual leave as a policy. The situation is more challenging for working women in India as, more often than not, they are unable to freely discuss menstruation, or the pain they go through every month with their male colleagues and managers because of the taboo surrounding the normal biological process.
While the initiative is laudable and well-intentioned, menstrual pain and cramps are not the biggest challenge that Indian women in workforce face. The fight for women’s participation in workforce is not to create exclusive policies, but of more inclusive policies for them fit in. The demand should be for equal access and opportunities, and not for concessions that come because of the biological differences between a man and a woman. Also, not to forget when we argue for equal opportunities, we ask so despite knowing the fact that we are different from men.
There are two arguments to be made here: First, how to make a more participative nation for women in workforce, and second, how to get rid of the taboo around talking about women’s periods. These arguments are important and should be a priority in order to create a more empowered environment in the country — as an economy as well as a society. In her book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg writes that workspaces can be made more inclusive for women by being sensitive to their needs, such as having designated parking for pregnant women, or ensuring hygienic toilets for them. Such small steps that can go a long way in inclusiveness.
In our country, women’s participation in labour force is either stagnating or dropping — the National Sample Survey (NSS) data shows labour force participation rates of women aged 25-54 in India have stagnated at about 26-28 per cent in urban areas, and fallen substantially from 57 per cent to 44 per cent in rural areas. At the same time, in terms of economic participation and opportunity of women, India ranks at 136 of 144 countries in the latest WEF Global Gender Gap report, coming in at 135th for labour force participation and 137 for estimated earned income. The focus, therefore, should be on making women an integral part of India’s economic goals.
Regarding the second argument around women’s basic health and hygiene, the latest census data shows that at least 636 million Indians lack toilets, a crisis that contributes to loss of economic output and violence against women. The shame associated with women’s periods has a huge impact not only their health but also education, shows a report in India Spend. It states: “Only in seven of India’s 36 states/union territories did 90% or more women in the 15-24 age group use hygienic protection during menstruation, according to the latest national health data.”
The demand for our rights is a just and a must cause, however, let’s choose inclusion rather than exclusion as a principle for policy making.