“Fairness does not mean everyone gets the same. Fairness means everyone gets what they need.”Rick Riordan.
Even in the 21st century, a majority of the rapidly progressing society of India shies away at the mention of menstruation commonly referred to as ‘Periods’. Despite having a Sex Ratio at 108.176, i.e., 108.176 males per 100 females in 2020, only 12-20% of women have access to sanitary pads while remaining women use unhygienic items. As India develops, there has been a trend of decline in the rates of women in the workforce. Although this indicates a higher trend in women pursuing higher education, it is pertinent to note that increasing women’s labour force participation by ten percentage points could add $770 billion to India’s GDP by 2025. Amid a plethora of issues faced by women at their workplace and the provisions made to improve their involvement in the workplace and to bring about an egalitarian workforce, the latest head-turner is the new policy of “Period Leave”.
The issue of Women’s rights has garnered a lot of attention and importance after the landmark ruling of the Supreme Court in Indian Young Lawyers Assn. v. State of Kerala , overturning the decades-long ban that prevented women in the menstrual age from entering the temple of “Sabarimala”, in Kerala. The decision brought to light, the unspoken discrimination based on the phenomenon of menstruation, which was a purely biological factor. The latest announcement from the Food delivery company, Zomato to institute the policy of period leave in India, allowing it’s women and transgender workers to take up to 10 days off per year, as an initiative to address the stigma around the issue of menstruation, has set off debates around the country. While one set of the population lauds the initiative and claims it a step towards equality, another set calls it a regressive decision, and a step back from achieving equality in the workplace while also calling it violative of men’s rights in the workplace. The debate began when Ninong Ering, a Congress MP and Lok Sabha Member of Parliament from Arunachal Pradesh, moved a private members’ bill – ‘the Menstruation Benefit Bill, 2017’ The bill proposed to provide women working in the public and private sectors two days of paid menstrual leave every month. The bill also sought to provide better facilities for rest at the workplace during menstruation. Several arguments and counter arguments have been put forward regarding this.
One group argues that Women have strived for decades to prove that they can function at par with men, And that menstruation is a natural process which should not be seen as a sickness, and that this bill would defeat that purpose and set us back from achieving the much-needed equality. They also argue that giving leave would, in turn, re-establish the ostracism faced in orthodox households that prevent women from entering the kitchen, visiting temples and performing several duties even within their household. Contrary to this argument, another set of women applaud this bill and its provisions citing medical reasons that make it difficult for women to even walk, much less function in workplaces. In the era of the modern woman who balances both her workplace and home, which most often includes children, with as much efficiency as her male counterpart, women often overlook their menstrual health and issues, which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Several women face abdominal cramps leading to severe pain extending to back and thigh, while others face intense pain usually caused by an underlying medical condition like endometriosis, pelvic inflammation and uterine fibroids which mainly affects older women. There are also other complications in the rise, such as Primary / Secondary dysmenorrhoea Endometriosis.
It has to be noted that Women belonging to all classes face these issues, and while the white-collared can afford pain-alleviating mechanisms, those involved in manual labour and in the rural areas do not have the luxury to do so. Further, the experiences of pain and discomfort during menstruation are unique to each individual. Given the intricacies and undefinable nature of effects during menstruation, a legal instrument protecting such a right would benefit every class. The author would like to point out that Menstrual leave, as a concept has been in existence for a fairly long time, although not explicitly laid down by law. In the state of Bihar, women have been granted special leave since 1992, during their menstrual periods, although it has not been called “menstrual leave”. A school in Kochi, in the state of Kerala, granted period leave its students as early as 1912 .
As stated before, the concept is not new, but legally recognizing it would go a long way in addressing the much-needed reforms in the Labour Laws of the country. Subsequently, this bill could address the need for sex education, bring about tax exemptions on sanitary products and be a huge step towards accessibility to menstrual hygiene in rural areas. It could also lead to the evolution of a more female-sensitive HR Policy in the private sector. At the end of the day, although the chances of the bill getting passed are significantly low, due to its nature being a private bill, it has provided an opportunity to discuss a taboo topic in the society more openly and paves the way for the discussion of more important topics that remain taboo even in the present age. To conclude, the author would like to quote a line written by Yale and Harvard Academics back in 2014 , “The structural organization of work has proved more inflexible than women’s ovaries”.
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