Menstruation Must Be Talked About And Treated — Like Any Other Health Issue
In India, questions related to menstrual health are largely taboo, and routinely ignored by authorities. Elsewhere in the world, there is some progress on the issue, though much more is needed.
NEW DELHI — There have been some significant developments around menstruation across the globe recently. Spain became the first European country to approve ‘paid menstrual leave’ for workers in case of severe period pain. Other countries like Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Zambia and the Soviet Union introduced similar laws many years ago.
The Soviet Union introduced a national policy in 1922, Japan in 1947 and Indonesia in 1948. Scotland was the first in the world to make period products available to all who need them at relatively accessible places. A considerable milestone was achieved when the first-panel discussion on menstrual health was conducted at the 50th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva in June 2022.
Menstrual leave in India is not a Martian concept. A school in Kerala has been granting its students period leaves since 1912. Bihar has been providing two days of special menstrual paid leave to women in the workforce since 1992. Kerala approved menstrual leave for female university students in January 2023.
Recently, some companies in India, Zomato, Byju’s and Swiggy, offered paid period leave. On February 24, the Supreme Court of India also heard the plea seeking directions to all states to frame rules for menstrual pain leaves for female students and working women.
However, the primary aspect that has been overlooked and needs to be addressed is the socio-cultural environment where provisions related to menstruation are formulated and implemented. Socio-cultural factors play a prominent role as menstruation is not just a biological process but a socio-cultural construct, not just a health issue but a human rights concern. It is a deeply rooted social and structural concern that is still neglected and often tabooed. Dasra, in its report ‘Spot on!: Improving menstrual management in India’, reported ‘70 per cent of mothers of menstruating daughters consider periods as dirty.’ People get awkward or raise their eyebrows after hearing the word menstruation. Shame, secrecy and silence around menstruation is a common phenomenon. For a few, their family honour is associated with it.
Deep-rooted misinformation, superstitions and societal restrictions lead to exclusion and discrimination against women. In India, menstruation is associated with a notion of purity and pollution. In a few parts of the country, especially in rural settings, menstruating women are considered impure and restricted from entering the house’s main area or kitchen or attending religious or cultural activities. The notion of purity and pollution is even attached to toilets, a basic privacy facility for changing cloth/sanitary pads.
There has been a massive uproar in India when some companies announced paid period leave for female employees. One section of women argues that it is for elite working women, and women in the informal sector will lose their wages if they take a single day’s leave. Radhika, who works in a company in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, said, ‘Even if it exists, I shall avoid taking leave (due to the associated shame and stigma) unless I feel that male employees and co-workers are truly supporting me.’ There has always been a culture of men questioning the credibility of women in the workforce who avail menstrual leave. They casually called it a “privilege of women”,“aurat hone ka ek aur faida”.
Managers avoid taking women in their teams, with the bias that women can be unreliable as they can take days off suddenly. The fear of menstrual leave might reinforce negative gender stereotypes leading to more discrimination against women by the employer in terms of hiring bias, lesser pay, and slower promotions. Meena Tiwari of the All Indian Progressive Women Association said, ‘At the times of protests, the household men often told women to not go to the protest and to do household chores. The men would protest on their behalf.’
The question of menstrual paid leave
In 2018, Ninong Ering, a former Member of Parliament in the Lok Sabha from Arunachal Pradesh, moved a private member’s bill called The Menstruation Benefits Bill, 2017. It aimed to provide paid menstrual leave; however, it got rejected and triggered a widespread debate. The Supreme Court of India recently refused to hear a PIL seeking directions to states to frame rules on menstrual leave. During the brief hearing, the bench took note of the submissions of a law student opposing the PIL, that if employers are compelled to grant menstrual pain leave to women employees every month, then it may disincentivise them from hiring women. While refusing to hear the PIL, the Supreme Court argued that it is the subject of policy and the government should act on it.
Men and boys significantly shape attitudes towards menstruating women.
Concerns related to menstrual health have been unheeded by the legislators and judiciary, except in a few cases. An unaccounted fact is the socio-cultural background of the stakeholders; class, caste, gender, race, religion, and ethnic identities play a crucial role. The ignorance in framing menstrual health policies can also be a result of this, which still needs to be adequately researched.
Men dominate policy-making spaces. Is law male? Men must engage with other males and young boys, as they significantly shape attitudes towards menstruating women. It is the need of the hour that the discussions around menstruation should come out of women’s locker rooms and become open for discussion with men at the personal and professional levels.
The socio-cultural environment has been and will always be an obstacle in menstrual health policy-making. These concerns need research funding, programmes and the visibility of activism. Even the role of the media becomes significant as it is a crucial factor in changing societal norms around menstruation.
Protest against 12% tax on sanitary products in India
Last year, on May 28, Menstrual Hygiene Day, a global advocacy platform, started a campaign to normalise and destigmatise menstruation by 2030. It majorly advocates to put an end to the shame and silence that menstruation engenders. Make people more aware of the problems with menstrual products, menstrual education, and period-friendly restrooms. Put together the resources needed for widespread change.
At this stage, states should commit to normalising menstruation and promoting accurate, all-inclusive menstrual education. However, limiting the discussion around menstrual products does not make it seem like the answer to social issues and inequalities. Providing menstrual products or granting period leaves cannot be the only criteria supporting the attainment of dignified menstruation practices. It cannot be a solution to the societal problem.
In India and globally, there is a need to transform the culture, system, norms and perception that can support menstrual health and well-being.
Ashutosh Singh is a doctoral researcher at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His area of research is “Menstrual Health and Hygiene”.