The feminist view: How sweet but what's the catch?
By Sushmita Ramakrishnan | Express News Service | Published: 23rd July 2017 07:55 AM |
Would you give period leave to your domestic help?
Isn’t the debate over paid period leave typical of middle class talk fests? An idea that, should it come to pass, would restrict the benefit to the corporate world?
Before the concept of menstrual leave became a law in Japan in 1947, it had taken a two-decade push by the country’s labour unions. The law is now in the books in a few Asian countries but such movements did not gain the support of the masses.
Is that how it might end up in India? The hard truth of our country is that only about 7 per cent of the workforce is in the organised sector. Even if women were half of this workforce — which they are not — only about 3.5 per cent of the total workforce in the country may get to enjoy the benefits of paid menstrual leave.
That would exclude agricultural labourers, short-term contract workers, self-employed women, domestic workers and many others who populate our faceless unorganised sector.
Within the organised sector, where human capital is seemingly the backbone of corporate companies, productivity is the mantra by which benefits like promotions and salary hikes are handed out. So how would women’s productivity be judged if they were to have menstrual leave? Would their performance appraisals at the end of the year be affected? Human resource executives that New Indian Express spoke to said that while paid menstrual leave would be welcomed by women staff, it may not — er, um, well — increase their productivity.
Soundarya Rajesh, founder-president of AVTAR Career Creators, agreed that period leave would bring relief to women, but it would also be a predicament. “When labour reforms such as maternity leave, work from home, child care break and flexible working hours penetrated work spaces, women came back and said that it was life changing,” she said.
Rituparna Chakraborty, president of the Indian Staffing Federation, however said the concept may not drastically improve women’s participation in the work force but may in fact diminish their status in their respective organisations instead. She says building inclusive workspaces for women would do more for gender justice than creating a new paid leave.
Aditya Misra, chief executive of CIEL HR, a leading staffing agency, pointed out another unanticipated outcome: Paid menstrual leave would increase gender polarity at work. Competitive male counterparts may create a hostile social atmosphere for women who avail of period leave. “Instead of bringing in a separate period leave, I would simply increase the number of days on a woman’s leave stack,” he said.
However, the menstrual leave debate may help improve men’s understanding of feminine physiology — which tends to be at best limited. As Soundarya Rajesh says, “While menstrual leave may not increase participation of women in the work force, it is a way of telling women that we accept them as a whole.”
Just a normal physiological function
Surprisingly, doctors who spoke to Express on the principle of period leave said menstruation is just that time of the month and should be treated as a normal physiological function rather than as a sickness.
Dr Suman Singh, gynaecologist, Bengaluru
Women risk ghettoising themselves if leave is mandated during menstruation. It is something that people work through, be they construction workers or work-at-home professionals. Only a small proportion of women experience debilitating pain and leave might be justified then. If they have severe cramps, medical help is available.
Dr Chitra Ramamurthy, gynaecologist, Apollo Hospital
If women have been working during their cycles all these years, they can continue to do so.
I think it is a normal biological function. In cases of severe endometriosis, there is pain and in such cases they may want to take leave.
At school, the whispered period
If working through menstruation is a problem for adult women, what must it be like for schoolchildren, especially in schools that rank low on sanitation arrangements.
A teacher, Sarada Academy Kanakpur High School, Jagatsinghpur, Odisha
Our school was established in 1882 but does not have a lavatory for girls and women teachers. One can well imagine the plight of girls who get their first period in school. Only when a girl complains of abdominal pain during her period do we take her to the common room to rest or allow her to go home if she stays close by.
Kamalini Das, headmistress, Sinduri UGMP School, Sunahat, Odisha
We do not have a common room where a girl can take rest on her first day of period. Women teachers have made it mandatory for girls of Classes VI, VII and VIII to attend a special class on Saturdays where they can talk about menstruation.
A new law required
In India, the question of menstrual leave has never engaged policymakers’ attention. Recently, the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016, increased maternity leave for all women employees from 12 weeks to 26 weeks for the first two children
■ The law requires every establishment with over 50 employees to provide creche facilities for mothers. Such mothers are permitted to make four visits during working hours to look after and feed the child in the creche.
■ Giving menstrual leave to women would require making a separate law that applies to both public and private sectors. Legal experts Express spoke to said the law would have to be comprehensive enough to plug any loopholes that might open up.
Kaleeswaram Raj, SC advocate
The legislative feasibility of menstrual leave has been demonstrated in at least a few countries which have separate enactments for it lest it become a matter of selective indulgence by a few employers.
Let’s take it case by case
If menstrual leave was made mandatory, would it make companies think twice before hiring women? Typically, HR managers said workers are hired for talent rather than other attributes.
A senior IT industry representative
Before we introduce a broad policy, there has to be a survey on how many women actually feel the need for it. While the menstrual cycle might be extremely painful for some, it might not be for others
Moksha Srivastava, co-founder and CMO of Wheelstreet
Our focus is on skill sets and talents, immaterial of gender. I’ve come across intense debates on exclusive policies, but we have experienced at par productivity between men and women regardless of health, time and travel constraints
Prerna Chauhan, HR manager, Media Mantra
Our company does not have a menstrual leave policy but would be flexible about it
How this leave works around the world
While the initiative is still a nascent policy in India, the concept is not uncommon globally. Here are some countries that already have a similar policy
According to Japan’s 1947 Labor Standards Law, women suffering from painful periods or those whose jobs might aggravate period pain are allowed seirikyuuka (meaning physiological leave). The law was implemented in view of the limited sanitary facilities available for women at workplaces including factories, mines.
Taiwan’s menstrual leave legislation is more recent. A 2013 amendment to the country’s Act of Gender Equality in Employment guarantees female workers three days of menstrual leave a year, in addition to the 30 days of half-paid sick leave allotted to all workers.
Only three of the country’s 24 provinces — Anhui, Shanxi and Hubei — have menstrual leave in China. In the central Anhui Province, women workers are allowed to take one or two days off on production of a certificate from a legal medical institute or hospital.
Indonesian women are entitled to take two days a month of menstrual leave, though many companies simply ignore the law.
Menstrual leave came into force in South Korea in 2001. The policy has lately come under fire from Korea’s men’s rights activists, who, despite Korea’s heavily male-dominated work culture, see it as a form of discrimination. An experiment to give menstruation leave to university students ended in failure.
A programme titled Mother’s Day gives women a day off from work every month in the African country.
One online shopping portal Sasto Deal introduced menstrual leave policy for women workers in 2016.
Contrary to popular notions, menstrual leave has not been a major issue in the west. The idea was floated in Russia in 2013, and more recently Italy, but to no avail. In the UK, a company Coexist announced a policy to allow women to take time off during their periods. Nike has had menstrual leave in their code of conduct since 2007.
How effective is it?
● Wherever it has been implemented, menstrual leave has not proven to be very successful. For instance, women in Japan do not take advantage of the menstrual leave policy for a number of reasons. One professional woman worker told The Guardian newspaper, “If you take menstrual leave, you’re basically broadcasting to the entire office which days of the month you have your period.” Many women tend to use regular sick leave rather than availing of menstrual leave, the report said.
● In an article in Global Times, Shanghai-based writer Yang Lan mentions that employees in China are evaluated and paid on the basis of their workload. “Workers have fixed responsibilities that they are required to fulfill. So if a woman takes menstrual leave, she will have to make up for lost hours, which will result in increased work pressure. Sure, women suffering from debilitating dysmenorrhea, a medically recognised pain in the pelvis that occurs during menstruation, should not be required to work. But the “bloody” fact is that accepting paid leave whenever a woman has cramps will ultimately do more harm than good for our cause, as it weakens us at the workplace,” she writes.