Inclusion or optics? Menstrual leave brings back debate on gender justice in India

Early this year, the southern Indian state of Kerala granted menstrual leave to students in all state universities under the Department of Higher Education. It was conveyed through a government order issued by the Minister of Higher Education, R. Bindu. This followed the decision of the Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT), a state-owned autonomous university, to give its female students an additional 2% relaxation on the mandated 75% attendance for each semester owing to menstruation. Expressing her appreciation for CUSAT’s decision, the minister said that “extending the same to all universities will be a great relief for female students".

Namitha George (23), the chairperson of the students union at CUSAT who pressed for the decision, said that she did it in the "spirit of equality and inclusion." "Many women and girls struggle due to pain and discomfort during menstruation. We wanted to recognise this struggle and make the option to rest available to them," she said. 

What is widely lauded as a progressive move towards a gender-just society however has the country divided in its opinion on if this decision is a mere token or if it would amount to progressive impacts in the society. Feminist scholar J. Devika wonders if this would further establish the secondary status of women in India. She sees no merit in the decision if it is not combined with other facilities like cleaner bathrooms and safe spaces to rest during those days, to name a few.

Menstruation is a natural process and severe pain is more of an exception than a norm, she said. “Many women would prefer to go to college or to the office during this time so as to not miss important events. What we actually need are facilities like rooms where she can take some rest while being in the office or college. We need to extend medical help to those who suffer from severe menstrual cramps,” Devika said.  

This is not the first time that period leave have been implemented in India. In 1992, the east Indian state of Bihar granted menstrual leave to its government employees. Various private companies like food aggregator Swiggy have also implemented it, leading to wider discussions on women needing additional rest during menstrual periods. A Member of Parliament Ninong Ering tabled a Menstruation Benefit Bill in the Parliament in 2017, that proposed various progressive provisions to destigmatise menstruation and to provide safe and healthy working conditions to women, which was overlooked. 

“As a teacher, I see many students suffering from pain and discomfort during menstruation. During menarche, high school students go through physical and mental stress. Granting them an option to take leave during that time will help them,” said a teacher and a member of the gender council in Kerala, Poornima Narayan. “It is certainly not enough but it could be the beginning of many more discourses around menstrual and reproductive health and positive changes,” she said. 

Dysmenorrhea, the medical term for severe menstrual cramps has been found to be common among adolescent girls. A 2018 study in south India revealed 66.8% of adolescent girls suffered dysmenorrhea while 30.1% reported severe blood loss. A school-based study in 2022 in Nepal garnered similar results with 48.3% of students reporting moderate to severe menstrual cramps.

Journalist Priyamvada Kowshik feels that an additional 2% waiver to the existing 25% absent days a student can avail, does little other than provide optics. “It may create the space for dialogue among university students, in the short term. But unless it is backed by actions where colleges are mandated to create better facilities for girls and people who bleed, it makes little impact,” she said.

When the Soviet Union implemented menstrual leave across their workforce in the 1920s, it was largely looked at as part of labour protection of women workers. A study revealed that under the New Economic Policy that followed, female workers experienced large-scale unemployment in various sectors - one of the reasons cited was the Bolshevik menstrual policy and the resultant presumption that women were weaker in physical capacity than men. Since then, many countries like Japan and South Korea have implemented period leave at the workplace, but feminists have argued that the motivation behind it has always been to protect women’s fertility and their role as mothers.

Recently, Spain became the first European country to introduce three days of menstrual leave at work for women. Studies, however, have shown that there are few takers for period leave at the workplace. A study in Japan found that less than 10% of women take menstrual leave. “Historically, menstrual leave have been given to appease women and to bypass infrastructural changes needed to make workspaces conducive for women during difficult periods,” Devika said.  

In largely patriarchal societies where male bodies are considered the standard and any deviation from it as an aberration, menstrual leave may help mainstream discourses around women’s bodies and its natural functions. “Menstruating people and their well-being cannot be discussed in comparison to people who don’t menstruate,” said Namitha. Priyamvada said that the desirable outcome is normalising periods, and the fact that some people may experience chronic and debilitating PMS (Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorders), dysmenorrhea and other menstrual conditions, that are getting due recognition and attention from the medical fraternity only now.

Devika feels whoever thought women could take rest at home has little clue about women’s household burden. “There is more work at home. If the office has a space where she can rest, every woman would prefer that,” she said.