Menstrual leave policy: A first-world band-aid to a deeply social wound?

First of all, I want to thank two groups of women – first, the one who have supported an online petition demanding India to adopt a menstrual leave policy. I might not agree with their view or believe India’s current economic situation supports such a policy, but I sincerely applaud their actions to stand up and voice this concern. It is not an easy task, particularly in our society, to be a face for women’s issues and these women are changing that image. The second group of women I thank are the ones who helped me shape my thoughts on the matter of menstrual leave – Shruthi, Megha, Reety, Karishma, Uma, Suhruta and Neha.

An online petition for a menstrual leave policy has reinvigorated a debate on whether women should be allowed to take paid leave during their periods. The petition was endorsed by MP Shashi Tharoor and in fact, a private member bill to that effect had been introduced in Parliament in 2018 by Ninong Ering, a member of Lok Sabha from Arunachal Pradesh. Bihar government has been providing a 2-day leave policy for its female employees since 1992. Female labour participation in India is poor and steps to improve working conditions for women could definitely incentivize their inclusion.

Ask – should a woman who is suffering from intensive period pain be afforded leave to rest at home – and no one in their right mind will say no. But should all women in a reproductive age be allowed 2 days to work-from-home or get paid leave? Do all women suffer to the same extent? Would such a policy create recruitment bias against women? Would such a policy impact the kind of roles institutions and companies give women? How would you enforce this policy? Is there any sensitive way to bring up this conversation in a society where there are still households which shun women into isolation when they bleed? The answer to an individual woman’s issue may not lie in a blanket policy that would reflect on the productivity of the entire sex.

Women in India have fought hard to free themselves from the isolation that periods traditionally brought to them. Most women no longer straitjacketed in their rooms, but go on with their jobs as normal. Getting rid of the tag of being “impure” has been an enormous task and is nowhere near completion. We now proudly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with men and are competing in spaces, traditionally considered a “man’s job”. To now mandate menstrual leave is a disservice to women who have fought for a right to work through their “impurity”.

But the policy of menstrual leave is not a novel proposition – Indonesia and Japan espoused it in the 1940s and South Korea introduced it in 2001. In Japan, a 1986 study of the policy found that the number of women using it declined from 20 percent in 1960 to 13 percent in 1981, largely because of societal pressures that frown upon its use. And that is in 1986! Even the few companies who practice this policy in India have received lukewarm participation.

A menstrual leave policy has many more anticipated unintended consequences. First and foremost is the fear of a recruitment bias against women. Any company or institution which focusses on productivity would lean to choosing a candidate who will be present in office more often. This is simple, non-judgemental economic sense.

But even say a company does decide to introduce a policy for menstrual leave. At larger scales of operations, HR would need to document menstrual leave being taken. Now imagine having a HR representative keeping track of a women’s monthly cycle. They might schedule tasks around the cycle, preferring to choose men or other women (who are in a different phase of their cycle and less likely to take off) for important responsibilities. This is a cringe-worthy handover of personal information to a third party. This tasking business will be complicated – most women do not have a regular period, so the 2-day leave would come over the range of say a week and team leaders might consider not taking the risk.

Pro-leave arguers believe that this very shape of thinking towards menstruating women needs changing and I would agree with that. But imposing on institutions to give paid leave is not going to elicit a co-operative response. Instead we need to take them into account – ensuring decisions are made keeping both the woman’s health and the team’s outcomes in mind.

The elephant in the room as far as health is concerned are women employed in the unorganized sector. These women are likely doing physical labour, have to work everyday for their daily wage (no wage could mean no food) and would not have access to good quality pads or even good toilet facilites. A menstrual leave policy could lull us into a false belief that women who want to take a break are taking a break, leaving this vulnerable population in deeper waters.

And what happens if a woman misses her period – she may be pregnant or undergoing perimenopause. HR could raise questions or at least be spooked. Conversely if she seeks menstrual leave to hide her pregnancy, wouldn’t HR question the leave on finding out she is pregnant? If some one’s period is delayed and they take leave say a week later than scheduled, would HR demand proof? Would other people commenting on when a woman takes or does not take a menstrual leave impact her mental health?

The debate of accessing menstrual leave is a small part of the bigger problem. It is estimated about 20% of women face debilitating period pains that can keep them from going to work. A doctor’s statement on the medical condition should suffice for the woman to get sick leave. A policy to let anyone who has a debilitating health issue to access additional sick days (up to a certain number) could solve this issue without putting any label on it.

But for the bigger cohort of working women of a reproductive age, the problem remains of a taboo of talking openly about menstruation. It is of men shying away when the topic comes up. It is of team leaders not knowing how to account for such situations. And for this problem, the answer isn’t imposition of paid leave. It is for women and men to have more open conversations about menstruation. It is for companies to offer men and women break rooms – irrespective of their hormonal cycles. It is for team leaders to consciously realise that women might prefer to work from the comfort of their home when they are bleeding in a similar fashion than men with a disgruntled tummy might like. It is for companies to consciously choose menstrual leave than having it imposed on them. And finally it is about having this conversation with those vulnerable sections of our society who need to hear it the most.

Women are finally coming close to breaking the barrier of being impure, let us try and not stick a label onto us again. In the least, if women want to propose such a policy, please think through its consequences for the current and future generations of women in the workforce.