An unstarred question on July 29 in the Lok Sabha, on whether the Centre is providing ‘menstrual leaves’ to its women employees, has once again revived the debate on whether working women should be entitled to paid menstrual leave. But, the chances of this rule being implemented in the country are very slim indeed, despite a Congress politician’s attempts to make it a law.
While raising the question on whether women are being granted menstrual leave, a private member of the Lok Sabha, Ravi Kumar, had referred to the provisions in the Menstruation Benefits Bill, 2018, which made such leave mandatory. This Bill has a long history with not much of a chance of becoming law even today.
In her reply, Union Minister of Women and Child Development, Smriti Irani, said government servants do not have provisions for menstrual leave and, presently, there is no proposal to include such leave in these rules. Female government employees can, however, avail of earned, extraordinary, half day, commuted, maternity leave or leave on medical certificate etc., for this purpose, she added.
Bill moved in 2017
Five years ago, it was Ninong Ering, then a Lok Sabha Congress MP and a former Union minister, had moved a private members’ bill, The Menstruation Benefits Bill, 2017, in which he had proposed that women working in the public and private sectors get two days of paid menstrual leave every month. The Bill also sought to provide better facilities for rest at the workplace during menstruation.
In a quick chat with The Federal, Ering, now an Arunachal Pradesh MLA, said he is keen to revive the Menstruation Bill, which had gone into “cold storage”. “The Menstruation Bill was introduced in Parliament as a private member’s bill by me and these kinds of bills are usually put up to get the government to take cognisance of the issue and bring about a bill. Usually, a private member’s bill never gets passed,” he said.
At that time, Maneka Gandhi was the Women and Child Welfare Minister and she had said that she would consider the matter. But nothing came out of it.
Incidentally, Ering, who, as a “father and husband”, feels strongly about the issue, also introduced the same bill this March in the Arunachal Pradesh legislative assembly. The state Minister of Women and Child Welfare and Health has promised him that a committee will be formed and they would look into the matter, he told The Federal.
On his view on whether such a bill will ever be passed in India, Ering said it is difficult to change people’s mindset. “It takes time to make people realise that it is necessary for women who go through a lot of pain during this time to get time off. Maybe, once some states will introduce it, others may follow suit. Maybe, the North-East states can show the way,” he observed.
What does the Menstruation Bill say?
According to the Bill, a woman government employee or a student above Class VIII in any government school, shall be entitled to paid leave or leave from the school, as the case may be, during her menstruation. If the employee undergoing menstruation opts to work instead of taking leave, she shall be paid overtime allowance at a prescribed rate.
Moreover, the Bill stated that the employee shall be entitled to 30 minutes of rest twice a day for not more than four days during menstruation in a month.
The reasoning behind the Bill is that women should be entitled to leave during menstruation because of the biological complexity of females and the intense pain they suffer. “In addition, women are least productive in terms of job during the menstruation, specially on the first and the second day of the menstrual cycle due to unmanageable discomforts. Thus, it may not be very fruitful to the employers in terms of production. Therefore, with both the perspectives of the female employees as well as the employers, menstrual leave is desirable,” said the Bill.
The Bill, therefore, seeks to entitle female employees with paid menstrual leave for two days. It also seeks to provide better facilities for rest at the workplace during menstruation. Providing women at the workplace the choice of taking menstrual leave and adequate rest is not only a step closer to destigmatise menstruation, but also towards ensuring more women join the workforce, said experts championing the legislation.
Ering, who introduced the same Bill in March 2022 on the first day of the Budget Session in the Arunachal Pradesh Assembly (where it was quickly withdrawn), had said that there had been frequent demands across India to amend the Labour Laws order to provide better working facilities to female employees.
“The Menstruation Leave movement has gained momentum across the nation and there had been intense demands to entitle women with paid leave during menstruation. Besides, there had been demands to provide intermediate breaks during menstruation in the working days and facilities for rest at the workplace in India,” Ering had said at that time. According to Ering, countries like Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Taiwan have been far sighted regarding the issue and entitle female employees with menstrual leave.
A couple of companies too (at that time) individually introduced the policy of paid menstrual leave, Ering added. Research conducted at University College, London, had revealed that period pain can be as “bad as having a heart attack”.
The Bill also has a fine and punishment for those who do not obey the rule. It states that whoever denies leave to a woman during her menstruation, or obstructs a female employee from entitlement of menstrual leave, or denies or discontinues prescribed rest and recreation facilities to the women during her menstruation, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than one month but which may extend upto three months and a fine of ₹10,000 that could extend to ₹50,000.
Criticism against Bill
Some women’s rights activists, however, have been critical of the policy, considering other aspects of women’s welfare like gender parity, menstrual health and hygiene are still neglected. The government should invest in menstrual hygiene and health, felt activists.
Shiv Sena leader Priyanka Chaturvedi, then a Congress spokesperson, had also voiced her opinion on the issue at that time, stating that women’s participation cannot be ensured by creating exclusive policies, rather by inclusive policies. The demand should be for equal opportunities and not for concessions due to biological differences, she had said.
A section of women believe that such a law will expose women to unfair treatment at the workplace. And, that this law can give rise to gender bias in the hiring process as companies.
Government efforts for menstrual hygiene
Meanwhile, Irani also listed the efforts of the government in ensuring menstrual hygiene among adolescent girls in the age group of 10-19 years since 2011, in her reply. The objective of the scheme is to to increase awareness among adolescent girls on menstrual hygiene; to increase access to and to ensure safe disposal of sanitary napkins in an environment friendly manner. A pack of sanitary napkins are also provided to adolescent girls by the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) at subsidized rate of ₹6 per pack, she said.
National guidelines on Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) have also been drawn up to increase awareness on managing menstrual hygiene in rural areas. Oxo-biodegradable sanitary napkins named Suvidha at sold at ₹1 per pad only by over 8,700 Janaushidhi Kendras set up across the country under the ministry of chemicals and fertilizers project.