This article first appeared as a featured post on Women’s Web in March, 2023.
Often discredited as being one of India’s most backward states, Bihar has been a trailblazer in granting menstrual leave to its women, both in the state government offices and universities. And this policy started as early as 1992 — a commendable and progressive move, indeed! On 19 January 2023, Kerala introduced a three-day paid leave for women and transwomen during their monthly menstruation cycle. A few private companies have started granting ‘period leave’ up to ten or twelve days in a year to their women and transgender workforce. But as a nation, we still have a long battle to fight to legalise the Menstrual Leave Policy (MLP) across sectors. In fact, globally very few nations have a proper MLP in place with Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, South Korea and Zambia leading the way. Spain, on 16 February 2023, became the first European nation to join the list.
The reason I follow this particular news article very closely is because I, myself, have been a sufferer of menstrual discomfort all my life. Heavy bleeding has been a part of my biological constitution since my menarche in the teen years. However, it was manageable. But in my early forties, the condition assumed serious proportions. A very heavy flow, made worse by frequent clotting and abdominal pain, marked every monthly cycle. And the fact that I had a full-time employment did not make things any easier. A battery of tests followed, and I was diagnosed as suffering from Endometriosis, a common clinical condition among women of this age.
Rising early, finishing the basic household chores and rushing off to work, and then standing for long hours in the classroom delivering lectures — the regimen demanded high energy levels. Something I could not generate despite my most sincere intentions. I consulted my gynaecologist and was put on iron and calcium tablets for daily consumption. She also prescribed some other pills to inhibit the flow, purely on an SOS basis. I never realised when the SOS pills had become my lifeline. Considering casual leave in school is limited (educators do have the advantage of enjoying longish vacations, though), these pills provided me with the much-needed relief in those difficult days. But did they claim to be a panacea? Certainly not! They were like the fairy godmother’s proverbial magic wand that warded off my issue for a few hours in school. Only to return later, with a vengeance!
Back home too, there were tasks that had to be done. There were days when I just felt like curling up on the bed, pressing the snooze button and relegating all tasks to the backburner. Here also, leave taking played spoilt sport. One could not possibly spin a yarn every month to seek respite from what was an inevitable occurrence. Within a few months my Hb levels started plummeting in spite of the ongoing medication, till the Haematology report screamed a measly 7! My doctor panicked, and so did my family. Some heavy-duty hormonal drugs were prescribed to arrest the condition, along with vitamins and mineral supplements. They started showing results in some time. But not without producing the undesirable side effects, weight gain and bloating being the most pronounced ones. I had to take these hormonal courses for some six to seven months within a calendar year. Additionally, I underwent two episodes of D&C in a span of four years to clear my uterine lining. Finally, after about five years of treatment, I entered the menopausal phase, albeit somewhat early. As is wont in cases of Endometriosis, I am told.
Through this entire phase, what distressed me the most was the lack of rest that was needed to combat the condition and expedite healing. Of course, I availed leave at times when things became a bit too ‘heavy’ to handle. But the awkwardness I felt, asking to be let off every month or thereabouts, was mortifying! And that is precisely where a legalised MLP would have come in handy. A large number of working women in the child-bearing age face health issues ranging from heavy or irregular periods to endometriosis, fertility treatment, perimenopausal complications and the like. Staying at home and taking rest occasionally is not a privilege or a luxury for them; it is the least they can do to preserve their overall health and ensure quality work output.
While I had a well-equipped restroom at school to meet my sanitary requirements, I know of several women employees in various sectors who do not have this privilege. Unsanitary conditions discourage them from using the restroom during their menstrual cycle unless it becomes a dire necessity. A couple of them have admitted to drinking less water on those days to minimise the use of the dirty washroom. And that is a great disservice they are doing to their own health and hygiene.
An interesting and insightful trivia I gathered from my extended family in Kolkata says that the domestic workers there demand a three to four day period leave every month while discussing the terms and conditions of work with a prospective employer. And they are granted the same without too much opposition. What our thriving government and corporate sectors have not been able to achieve, the unorganised female labour force in Kolkata surely has.
As long as only a few organisations are granting period leave while the vast majority are not, it will continue to look like a favour being bequeathed upon the ‘weaker sex’. And thus encourage gender-shaming and discrimination against the entire female workforce which is already battling its own demons. A paradigm shift in perspective and mindset can be implemented only with the support of legalisation. Besides, the latter will also help normalise discussions around menstrual health. Having said that, it is also important to remember that MLP, when sanctioned, should not be misused by its beneficiaries — it should not be seen as a paid holiday availed to fulfil one’s personal agenda and outstanding errands. Not every menstrual cycle is difficult; just as not every woman suffers uncontrolled bleeding or abdominal cramps. Due mindfulness and prudence need to be exercised by the women concerned, lest it gets branded as an ‘arm-twisting ploy’ applied to wrest additional and unwarranted advantage at the workplace.
While we wait for the honourable Supreme Court to take cognisance of this very real and recurrent biological condition faced by women across all demographic barriers, let us all make the right kind of noise to make our words count and our collective voices heard. PERIOD.
P.C. Simon Kadula on Unsplash
#periodleave #womenatwork #periodpain #endometriosis