Over the last few years, organizations in the Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) and Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) space have done a tremendous job in increasing body literacy and maintaining menstrual hygiene. As more people continue to join the dialogue, menstruators have become more cognizant of their health needs and willing to acknowledge such things as the pain one may feel due to menstrual cramps or the discomfort they face because of disorders like PCOS and Endometriosis. With a steady rise in conversations on topics like menstruation in recent years, discussions around instituting a menstrual leave policy have also gained traction.
However, like most gender-based policies, Menstrual Leaves also need to be contextualised based on community requirements. Before I address these salient points of discussion however, let me answer you this. What does menstrual leave imply? A menstrual leave can be categorised as an option of availing a paid (or unpaid) day off from work due to periods and the many related emotional, mental and physical distresses one may feel as they menstruate.
There is no doubt that a menstrual leave policy has considerable merit in being instituted at workplaces to promote inclusion.
It would help ease the process of managing periods for menstruators who do not have conducive workspaces. Those with severe period anomalies can make use of the leaves by managing their periods in more comfortable environments like their homes without having to worry about the effect it would have on their work.
A verified menstrual leave policy also helps ensure that non- menstruators become cognizant of their menstruating peers’ health needs. However, this would demand fervent gender sensitization workshops aimed at educating employers and employees on sexual and reproductive health rights with a focus on menstrual health management. The workshops will also help make menstruation a more inclusive space by elucidating the experiences of the non- binary and trans-communities with menstruation. This will ensure that additional leaves to menstruators do not turn into resentment for them by their non- menstruating colleagues. Colleagues will also become mindful of the narratives and language they use to converse on menstruation and gain a holistic outlook to menstrual health management, enabling them to become better allies. Numerous studies have also shown an increase in productivity in workspaces as employees see their needs being met with the introduction of gender sensitive HR policies .
Nevertheless, a menstrual leave policy is not averse to flaws. Perhaps the one that stands out most is the policies effect on the need for workspaces to consider being gender sensitive. Possibly, a menstrual leave policy may act as a way for companies to subvert their resources from installing proper Water, Sanitation and Hygiene facilities (WASH) and provide for the needs of their menstruating employees. It may lead to reluctance and even disregard for making actual provisions to improve resources for maintaining sexual and reproductive health. More importantly, much like maternity leaves, if menstrual leaves are mandated, these may act as detriments to a menstruators’ professional growth. People who bleed may be seen as liabilities to the company, raising its costs when considered against the number of leaves allowed to a non- menstruating employee.
Throughout history, issues with pain, especially when expressed by women and girls have tended to be ignored even by medical professionals. For many ‘assigned females at birth’, pain, whether it is slight or severe, is normalised, leading them to believe that they should be able to bear it at any costs. Granting menstrual leaves runs dangerously close to normalising severe period cramps that can cause spells of nausea, dizziness and black outs. Menstrual leaves would also leave out other anomalies one may have throughout their menstrual cycle like severe PMS and PMDD that can affect an individual’s emotional and mental well- being.
As I understand, menstrual leave policies, one which offers the employees an opportunity to choose to take a leave during menstruation needs to be complimented with awareness and resource building endeavours. It may end up victimising the very people it wants to protect. It also appears to be a short-term, inadequate and quick-fix solution, where menstruation and conversations on body literacy are conveniently left out. For a truly effective menstrual policy, one that aims to overthrow the need for continued menstrual leaves, the policy should be accompanied with certain aspirational recommendations. Some key recommendations could be ensuring proper, safe WASH facilities and provision of menstrual care products in workspaces. Facilitation of gender sensitization workshops which can help non-menstruators understand their peers better, play an equally important role. Menstrual leave policies may however work as the initial first steps to introduce the larger subjects of menstrual health rights and sexual and reproductive health rights in work environments and subsequently, communities and households. Especially in a developing nation like India, period leaves will act as an acknowledgement and active recognition of the needs of menstruators!