Earlier this month, an announcement by an Indian company reignited the debate on period leaves.
Zomato, one of India’s largest food-delivery firms, sent a note to employees stating that it understands “men and women are born with different biological realities.” It offered 10 days a year for its women and transgender employees to avail during their period cycles.
“These leaves should only be availed if you are really unable to attend to work,” wrote Zomato’s founder and CEO Deepinder Goyal. He added a note for men that the leave shouldn’t make them uncomfortable. “While we don’t fully understand what women go through, we need to trust them when they say they need to rest this out,” wrote Goyal in his note.
Around the time of Zomato’s announcement came another from a digital company in the city of Surat, in the western state of Gujarat. They offered menstrual leaves up to 12 days a year to break period stigma in “small-size businesses”.
These initiatives are especially significant in a country like India, where recent data shows less and less women are participating in the Indian labour force than men. A World Bank data showed that less than 30 percent of working-age women work, compared to nearly 80 percent of men. Reasons range from lack of jobs in “female-friendly” sectors, to stigma around women working. Lack of access to menstrual products is also known to hold back women from the labour force.
Coupled with widespread period stigma in the country — with women and girls being shamed and shunned when they are menstruating — the instituted period leaves understandably sparked important discussions.
On social media, especially Twitter, the move divided several women over whether they were in agreement with period leaves or not.
Indian journalist Barkha Dutt tweeted that Zomato’s “woke” decision will “ghettoise women” even more and that women do not want any concessions at workplaces.
But other women spoke about the importance of the move, elaborating on the painful monthly cycle many go through, but are told to shut up and pop a pill in order to work.
Nisha Susan, Indian journalist and founder of feminist online platform, The Ladies Finger, told VICE News that this debate stems from “a lack of understanding and confusion about what equality means and how it works at a workplace.”
Susan pointed to the fact that women’s pain has often been made invisible across the world and throughout history. In the medical world, “Yentl syndrome” is the name given to the lethal consequences of women’s pain not being taken seriously by doctors.
But the online debates are far from representative of the realities on the ground. “It’s just the tip of the iceberg about conversations around work spaces, women and workers,” Filmmaker and writer Paromita Vohra told VICE News. “The focus on this debate leaves out women who are not in the argument.”
In India, a huge chunk of the population suffers direct consequences of period stigma. These voices are not online, and able to participate in Twitter debates.
The Menstrual Hygiene Alliance of India estimated that there are 336 million menstruating women in India, of which only 121 million have access to menstrual hygiene products. In 2018, a WaterAid and UNICEF report found that up to two-thirds of girls in South Asia didn’t know about menstruation, and one in three missed school because of it.
In 2019, the adverse impact of stigma around reproductive health of women at work came into the limelight through two separate news reports.
The first came from the western state of Maharashtra, where women got hysterectomies — the surgical removal of the uterus — to work on the fields because contractors were reportedly unwilling to hire women who miss work due to pain caused by their periods.
The second came from a multi-billion dollar garment industry in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where women were given pills so they don’t miss work due to period pain.
Women also continue to face period-shaming in many parts of the country. Most recently, college students in the western Indian state of Gujarat were forced to strip and show their underwear to prove they were not menstruating. The college had rules for menstruating women that barred them from entering the temple and kitchen, and prohibited them from touching other students.
A similar strip search took place in 2014, wherein female employees in a factory in the south Indian city of Kochi were stripped after a supervisor found a used sanitary napkin in the toilet.
The debate around period leaves is not new in India. The first reported period leave dates back to 1992, when the government services in the eastern state of Bihar introduced two days of leave per month for its female employees. Period leave was also offered by a digital company called Culture Machine in 2017.
Vohra said that it’s important to note whether initiatives like Zomato’s actually impact the structural reality of the workplace.
"Most workplaces are designed for men, physiologically and culturally speaking, and it is imagined that their professional life will take priority over personal life,” she said. “It falls on women to fill that gap and carry those burdens, and then, often suffer in the workplace.”
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