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Paid menstrual leave in India: Progress?

Menstrual calendar, the sanitary napkin lying on a red calendar. Copyright: <a href=''>ivancov / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
Some Indian companies are adopting policies allowing women to take paid leave at the outset of their period – but the policy is being debated over whether it is a progressive or regressive one.

Paid menstrual leave is gaining popularity among companies in India. However, debate continues over whether it is a progressive or regressive policy.

A number of Indian companies now allow women to take paid leave for dysmenorrhea, or period pain. Culture Machine, Magzter and Mathrumbi are among the firms to have taken this step in recent months. A video posted to YouTube by Culture Machine announcing the initiative went viral.

The Kerala state government is currently debating paid menstrual leave for government employees. This follows a submission by Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) K. S. Sabarinathan, who has said that the state government ought to set an example to other workplaces in the state by providing paid menstrual leave for its female employees.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has offered a somewhat cautious response to the proposal. He notes “we have to also consider that such leave will not lead to the isolation of women at workplaces. Women’s privacy also needs to be considered.”

A mixed bag

The idea of paid menstrual leave is controversial, if well-intentioned. It is already on offer for female workers in a number of Asian countries such as Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, as well as regions of China. The idea was also tabled in Italy earlier this year.

In those countries, however, paid menstrual leave for female employees has often been a mixed bag at best. Many women in Japan, for example, do not take their menstrual leave for various reasons. These include privacy concerns. As one Japanese woman points out, “you’re basically broadcasting to the entire office which days of the month you have your period.”

Other reasons include fear of sexual harassment, discrimination and stigmatisation in the workplace. A particularly invasive realisation of these concerns in Indonesia has witnessed some female employees being asked to remove their trousers to prove their need for menstrual leave.

Broadening the gender pay gap?

Perhaps one of the most heightened concerns about paid menstrual leave is that it could broaden the pay gap between men and women. The gender pay gap in India already exceeds 30 percent. Furthermore, women’s participation in the Indian workforce is both visibly low and on the decline.

A World Bank study published earlier this year found that India’s female labour force participation (FLFP) has experienced a “precarious drop” in recent years, dropping by 19.6 million between 2004-05 and 2011-12. This leaves India with the lowest FLFP rate of any country in south Asia sans Pakistan – and one of the lowest in the world.

Introducing paid menstrual leave in India could exacerbate this situation, by potentially disincentivising Indian employers from hiring women. There are similar concerns in Italy, where paid menstrual leave was tabled earlier this year, it was suggested by Lorenza Pleuteri that “employers could become even more oriented to hire men rather than women.”

“A symbol for women’s emancipation”

A number of taboos and misconceptions surrounding menstruation continue to exist in India. This often fosters religious, workplace and domestic discrimination, especially in rural communities.  

Paid menstrual leave could well lead to greater openness about menstruation in Indian society. Alice J. Dan, quoted by The Atlantic, describes paid menstrual leave as “a symbol for women’s emancipation…[representing] their ability to speak openly about their bodies, and to gain social recognition for their role as workers.”

Copyright: <a href=''>belchonock / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
The decision of the Indian government to levy a 12 percent tax against sanitary pads under the GST was met with widespread controversy and outrage.

However, it is also suggested that the opposite is true. There are concerns, for example, that paid menstrual leave reinforces the notion that a woman on her period ought to be isolated. Taking paid menstrual leave can also be interpreted as an admission of weakness and unsuitability for the workplace.

India still has much work to do in terms of improving menstrual health and dignity. Beyond sociocultural stigma, difficulties for menstruating Indian women persist. Awareness is low among the young. According to a study published last year, half of adolescent girls did not know what menstruation was when they got their first period. Ignorance surrounding menstruation is especially pronounced in rural communities.

Earlier this year, sanitary pads were placed in the non-essentials bracket under the new Goods and Services Tax (GST). As such, a 12 percent tax is levied on them. Items such as bangles, bindis and sindoor, meanwhile, continue to be tax exempt. 

CNN notes the irony that a 12 percent tax on sanitary pads means only 12 percent of Indian women can afford them.

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