Authors: Aparajita Bharti and Mitali Nikore
Published: August 26, 2020 in Hindustan Times
The recent announcement of paid period leave for female employees by an Indian unicorn has once again thrust the issue of mandatory menstrual leave into the spotlight. Many activists feel that menstrual leave should be a paid leave granted by law, like maternity leave.
The support for period leave rests on a sound rights-based argument — that workplaces need to accommodate for biological differences between co-workers. Period leave allows women to rightfully rest during their menstrual cycle. It is well-documented that women experience a wide range of health complications during their monthly cycle — cramps, back and muscle pains, bloating, headaches, nausea, among others. These symptoms can assume greater severity for women suffering from chronic conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis.
While the experience of a period is different for different women, and certainly differs month-to-month for the same woman, period leave is thought to be a means to legitimise the physical toll of a painful monthly cycle, to be taken if required, a means to create equity at the workplace. It is also cited as a way of normalising conversations around menstruation.
However, to achieve the stated objectives, we cannot ignore the economics of a period leave. We need to be clear where the funding for menstrual leaves comes from. If menstrual leave is structured like maternity leave, it threatens to increase the cost of hiring women. This has implications in the long-run.
Teamlease Services found that 1.1-1.8 million women lost their jobs in 2018-19 across 10 major sectors owing to the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act 2016 which doubled paid maternity leave from three to six months. Similarly, there are other costs associated with hiring women that lead to unsaid but rampant discrimination.
It is well-known that many employers in India are hesitant to hire women for jobs that require frequent travel as they need to make special arrangements for their safety. Essentially, society’s failure to keep women reasonably safe leads to a public cost internalised by employers as a private cost.
Paid period leave can further exacerbate this situation. Even if this by itself does not keep women out of jobs, it can lead to discrimination in hiring and promotion and raise the barriers for women to enter and climb the corporate ladder. It also creates grounds for companies to offer lower in-hand salaries to women, justifying it on the basis that the cost to company for women and men should be equal.
Further, we need to be cognisant of who menstrual leave would benefit and who it could potentially keep out of the workforce. About 55% of urban working women were in regular, salaried employment in 2018-19. Of these, 71% had no written job contract, 51% were not eligible for paid leave, and 53% were not eligible for any social security benefit. Period leave will not touch the lives of millions of casual women workers in the informal economy in both urban and rural areas. By increasing the costs of hiring women, we, in fact, risk keeping them out of the workforce.
Now let’s examine the second assertion, i.e., normalising conversation around menstruation. Gender specialist and menstrual health educator Mayuri Bhattacharjee notes that, “Period leave does nothing to reduce the biases and taboos around menstruation.”
The explicit term “period leave” creates a demarcation, rather than allowing it to be a type of sick leave — thereby allowing a judgment to be passed on the severity of the “sickness” or as many women experience in domestic spaces, legitimate complaints getting passed off as “pre-menstrual syndrome”. Further, like any other health-related information, it should be a person’s right to decide how open they would like to be about their experience.
Given these apprehensions, we need to find a balance between creating space for women to seek period leave when required and ensuring that it doesn’t become another ground for employers to favour men over women.
A good solution might be to increase the number of paid sick leaves by law for both men and women (but keeping it equal). While it increases the overall cost of doing business in India, it treats men and women at par. Changing the goal from menstrual leave to increasing the number of sick leaves will also let women take charge of how much they’d like to disclose about their menstrual health. Paid sick leaves can be viewed as a form of social security.
In the interim, we can also experiment with other middle-path solutions. The pandemic has demonstrated the potential of remote working to many employers. In industries where remote working has proven to be effective, employers can be encouraged to institute work-from-home policies that allow employees to work remotely for a fixed number of days in a month. This flexibility will ensure that women can work from the comfort of their home, in case they find it inconvenient to travel or work from office during their period.
While the intentions of those campaigning for menstrual leave are laudable, we must be cognisant of the unintended consequences that may arise from such a policy. No amount of safeguards in the maternity law have been able to guard against the ex-ante discrimination against women when they are being considered for a job, for a promotion, for a salary raise.
We must learn from this experience and to improve working conditions of the 10% women who are in the formal workforce, we must not forget about the remaining 90% women workers who are in the informal sector for whom such policies threaten to become the gatekeepers.
Mitali Nikore is founder, Nikore Associates, a policy design think tank, and Aparajita Bharti is founding partner, The Quantum Hub, a public policy research and advocacy firm. The views expressed are personal.