Ladies, how many of us have had to take half-days from work or make excuses for suffering from “lady problems” and having to answer concerning questions about your health with a feeble “stomach upset” when you really wanted to say “ON MY PERIOD”, terrible cramps – need a heating pad, some chocolate and a lot of tea (or even painkillers) so I’m taking the day off”?
In a country where women turn expert smugglers when “that time of the month” approaches, in carrying a harmless packet of sanitary napkins inside a specifically black packet from the shop to their homes, calling periods a “taboo” wouldn’t be an understatement. The policy of Zomato is considered a bold move in tackling an age-old taboo in India, where 71% of young women remain unaware of menstruation until their first cycle, according to UNICEF. A 2015 survey by the Ministry of Education found that in 63% of schools in villages, teachers never discussed menstruation and how to deal with it in a hygienic manner.
Menstrual cycle symptoms can include pelvic and lower back pain, headaches, fatigue and mood swings caused by a fluctuation in hormonal levels. It often affects school and workplace performance and can grow worse with age. In 2018, Marie Claire quoted John Guillebaud, professor of reproductive health at University College London, as saying that patients say dysmenorrhea, or period cramps, are “almost as bad as having a heart attack,” often exacerbated by pre-existing conditions like PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome). 2014 report by the NGO Dasra titled Spot On! found that in India, nearly 23 million girls drop out of school early when they start menstruating and many of them end up facing acute health problems.
A Post by Siobhan Fenton in the ‘Independent’ said that, “Men wait an average of 49 minutes before being treated for abdominal pain. For women, the wait is 65 minutes for the same symptoms. It’s thought that this is because women are seen as exaggerating pain and being ‘dramatic’ due to sexist stereotypes”. Period pain has long been dismissed as mere “stomach ache” by people who don’t experience it. But ask the women who menstruate, and some will tell you that they dread that time of the month for the emotional and physical baggage it brings. A medical condition for which painkillers and injections exist can’t be deemed mild, especially when it comes with symptoms like diarrhoea, body ache, bloating, not to mention, the mood swings PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome) brings. And it becomes worse with serious dysfunctions such as menorrhagia, endometriosis, fibroids, pelvic inflammatory disease.
Zomato’s period leave drew headlines around the world and triggered discussion among social media users. ” No uterus, no opinion”. The simple fact of the matter is that men, who have long been the forerunners of patriarchal narratives in society, should not make any decisions on part of women and their bodies. No one, except the individual who is menstruating, should be allowed to judge how much pain is debilitating, how to deal with it, or how to express it. Well, apart from the expected misogynistic (women will take advantage of this to slack off from work) and too-clever-by-half (one asked on Twitter, what about “painful erection leave” for men) responses of a few men, a big backlash came from women themselves. From older women, women who have had to work hard through largely male workplaces and establish space for themselves and those who came after them. In the early days of women in the workplace, you had to be tougher than the men to get ahead. You could not show signs of weakness because if you did, you were immediately put down and put back in that place for the “weaker sex”. The Women’s Movement at the time was for equality, hard-fought and hard-won, whatever little bit was won.
It is a flawed argument that taking a couple of days off during your period will position you as someone who is incapable of doing work in equal measure to men, or will disadvantage women by deeming them as the “weaker sex.” This has been an opinion espoused even by journalist Barkha Dutt in the past, who in 2017 wrote an article headlined – “I’m a feminist. Giving women a day off for their period is a stupid idea.” – which claimed that a menstrual leave would only “emphasise that there is something spectacularly otherworldly about a bodily function.”
Because it will shut many doors women are still trying to break down and trust me the moment you claim period leave those doors will remain shut and I'd shut them too for someone who thinks this is a good reason for time off
— barkha dutt (@BDUTT) August 11, 2020
The problem, however, is the generation gap between women who toughed it through to make space in a man’s world. Yes, we, and the women before who were even tougher, often very unsympathetic, had to hide several aspects of our femininity or we would lose out on opportunities or promotions. But that is exactly what a period leave would serve to counter, To tell men that periods are normal, monthly occurrences that may sometimes require medical attention.
Zomato isn’t the first Indian company to introduce period leave. The state of Bihar has had two extra days of casual leave for government employees to take time off for periods since 1992. In 2017, the digital media company Culture Machine, which has offices in five cities in India, put in place a menstrual leave policy independent of vacation and sick days. There are also forms of menstrual leave policies in Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Zambia. However, the humiliation and shame that a woman had to undergo just to prove that she was actually on her periods led many women to avoid availing the leave altogether.
In 2018, The debate on the ‘Menstruation Benefit Bill’ tabled by Ninong Ering, a Member of Parliament in Lok Sabha representing Arunachal Pradesh, triggered a widespread discussion on the need to have menstrual leave policy for working women every month.
The Menstruation Benefits Bill seeks to provide women working in the public and private sectors two days of paid menstrual leave every month as well as better facilities for rest at the workplace during menstruation. While debating about the Bill, it is important to not bias our lens and focus on only one section of women as women from all sections irrespective of the kind of work they do, menstruate.
Different bodies respond differently to the pain and discomfort experienced during menstruation. Given the difficulties and biological complexities that women go through, I think it is extremely important that such a Bill be passed and women be given every right to avail of this leave when required. It will be a step towards breaking this taboo of “impurity” that surrounds menstruation. It’ll create a confident space for women to reclaim their bodies without embarrassment.