On 8th August 2020, Zomato, an Indian restaurant aggregator and food delivery start-up, announced a new policy of ‘period leave’ for all its female and transgender employees, offering them up to 10 leaves in a year on account of their period. In a country where menstruation is still seen as a taboo, with most menstruators unequipped for the process of menstruation until their first cycle, it is a bold and progressive move.
Zomato’s decision set off a turbulent turmoil amongst the netizens on whether or not period leaves are required. The whole debate boils to one question: Who needs period leaves? The answer to that would be – individuals with endometriosis who go through excruciating agony and are forced to pop pills like candy during their period, menstruators suffering from heavy bleeding, people who go through hormonal therapy, menstruators with irregular periods, those who bleed for fifteen out of thirty days of the month, individuals with PCOS who experience fatigue, headaches, agonising cramps and dysmenorrhea, all need period leaves.
In a nutshell, people who menstruate need period leaves, or rather, must have the option to avail them. Yet their struggles are not considered important enough to be addressed at the workplace.
People who feel period leaves are unnecessary argue that menstruators might ‘misuse‘ these leaves every month under the disguise of periods. It is extremely sexist to assume that a woman or menstruator’s first instinct is to misuse the policies that essentially protect them. There may be exceptions, but it is problematic to deprive the entire community of menstruators of the benefits of the policy based on this assumption.
Our workspaces are sexist and women have to work doubly hard to prove themselves, and are constantly under the microscope. For example, in 1947, Japan was the first country to introduce period leaves. Reports suggest that Japanese women rarely use it. It may seem like a tokenistic move unless people change their mindsets and provide menstruators with an enabling environment to make use of this provision.
Period leave is not a step back in feminism. It is, in fact, ten steps forward as it aims to create an inclusive and sensitive workspace by normalising menstruation and breaking the stigma associated with it. Gender equality advocated by feminist thought does not imply that women, transgender individuals and men should be considered identical. The stress here is on the concept of equity rather than equality which often positions the needs of all genders as identical.
The concept of period leaves did not exist earlier since traditionally, we are a part of a patriarchal status quo where workplaces are designed and structured to accommodate only the male section of the society, making it difficult for menstruators to survive.
Through the ages, even the advertising sectors have set rather unnatural standards around menstruation, where periods are often romanticised. By portraying models participating in sports and physical activities in bright white pants, these ads propagandise cringe- worthy euphemisms which create a false narrative that is far from the hard reality of extreme fatigue and pain that a person faces during their menstrual cycle. To bring everyone’s menstruation experiences under the collective umbrella of ‘a normal event’ is ignorant.
Maternity leaves do not label birth givers as weak. It takes their aggravated physical needs into account, and offers them space for rest and recouping. Then why shouldn’t period leaves serve the same purpose? Period leaves don’t aim to ghettoise menstruators and amplify biological determinism or exaggerate it into a monumental event. They encourage a shift in the current teaching and working paradigm to one that incorporates the needs of menstruators from an early age by normalising menstrual conversations.
In 2013, the gender pay gap in India was estimated to be 24.81 per cent. India is also one of the bottom 10 countries when it comes to female participation in the economy. Thus, in addition to unequal pay, there is also unequal representation even though women constitute almost half the Indian population.
People who rebut period leaves claim that this move will be a stab in the back of the equal pay since women and other menstruators work fewer days and should therefore be paid less, and firms would refrain from hiring them due to reduced productivity. What people fail to realise here is that women as a part of the workforce create a huge impact on the economy in terms of productivity as well as output.
The analysis is incomplete without accounting for the lived experiences of women from oppressed and marginalised communities. Till 2018, saleswomen in Kerala were not allowed to sit, and take lunch or loo breaks during work hours. An able bodied woman’s experience in an organised workplace is starkly different from that of a woman or menstruator with disability, or belonging to an oppressed caste, class, and community when it comes to period leaves.
In a paradigm without job security or regular incomes, where even the concept of sick leaves is alien, asking for period leaves seems far sighted. For these menstruators, the concept of period leave itself doesn’t provide much respite in the existing circumstances due to lack of accessibility. It is therefore, imperative to have conversations on period leaves to normalise them and ensure they are availed without insitutional or emotional barriers by those who need them.
For instance, the women of the Asangatitha Meghala Thozhilali Union (Unorganised Sector Workers’ Union) in Kerala fought for the right to a safe working environment in a male dominated space via an amendment in Kerala Shops and Establishments Act, 1960. Imagine having to fight for the right to sit and to use washrooms when you are bleeding all day?
Reports cite that there are 355 million menstruating women in India, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the country’s population. Countless women miss classes/work due to their period as there are no clean, safe spaces to change their menstrual products. A 2014 report by the NGO titled Spot On! cites that nearly 23 million girls drop out of school annually due to lack of proper menstrual hygiene management facilities’. The statistics of trans individuals and other gender non-confirming menstruators are not available because hardly any research goes into the menstrual experiences of such groups, further invisibilising them.
Menstruation attaches itself to the productive value of menstruators. Why should those who are severely distressed by their biological functioning be asked to tolerate their pain? Hiring biases are a result of misogyny and can’t be solved by treating women and trans individuals like men.
The workplace should be restructured to enable menstruators to prioritise their menstrual health without the fear of losing opportunities. We must strive to create a progressive era encompassing a more sensitive and all-inclusive framework where every member is treated with dignity and pushed to transcend.
Sampriti Dutta is a graduate in English literature from Hans Raj College, University of Delhi. She is an ardent mental health activist and an animal lover. On her good days, you can find her trying to make a mark in the world. On her bad ones, you find her curled up in the bed questioning her existence with her pup. You may find her on Instagram and LinkedIn.
Smruthi Krishnan is an Economics Honours graduate from Hans Raj College, University of Delhi. Smruthi is a copywriter and an ardent mental health activist. A theatre artist and storyteller, she’s the loudest girl in the room, usually ranting about everything possible in the world whilst sipping on cold coffee. You may find her on Instagram, LinkedIn and Linktree