Cramps, Painkillers, and Tears: Why Every Woman Should Have the Right to Take Menstrual Leave


Cramps, Painkillers, and Tears: Why Every Woman Should Have the Right to Take Menstrual Leave

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

A significant part of my 35 years have been marked by excruciating pain that originates once a month. My period cramps last two or three days. I get loose motions, I barf. Sometimes, both happen at the same time and at those times I am a total mess. I sit on the toilet seat, resigned to my condition, as all manner of fluids leave my body. When I’m done, I clean myself, boil some water and curl up in bed with a hot water bag pressed to my lower back. I take a painkiller every six hours. If I am even an hour late, all hell breaks loose and all I can do is sob, sweat, shiver and scream into my pillow willing the painkiller to start working.

All my life, I have never been able to go to office on the first day of my period. Am I an outlier? Judging by all the women I am surrounded by, not even close.

Menstrual leave is for women like me. In recent times, the concept of taking a couple of days off every month for your period has caused, much fracas. Yet, the concept is not new. It is already prevalent in countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Zambia where women are entitled to one or more days of leave during their periods.

It isn’t as if this is a “Western” concept with no resonance in India. The Government Girls School in Tripunithura, Kerala has, since 1912 granted period leave to its students if they were menstruating during the annual exams and allowed them to take their tests later. The Bihar government has, since 1992, given its female employees two days of menstrual leave each month. They are eligible for this up to the age of 45, after which, if they still haven’t hit menopause, they can apply for an extension.

The rest of the country though – especially corporate offices, where women are a significant part of the workforce – has somehow remained quiet on the matter… Until 2017, when the Menstruation Benefit Bill was tabled before the Lok Sabha by Arunachal Pradesh MP, Ninong Ering. The Bill, which seeks to provide women working in the public and private sectors two days of paid period leave every month, sparked widespread, vociferous debate.

In its initial response in 2018, the Ministry of Women and Child Development said that the government had no plans to legally enforce the proposed leave. But since then, the matter has garnered supporters on both sides of the argument and turned into an ongoing national debate.

Women’s bodies are vastly different from men’s, and comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges

Senior journalist Barkha Dutt, a leading opponent of the policy, believes it would “ghettoise” women and increase gender-based discrimination. NDTV anchor Nidhi Razdan says it would “increase biases against women at the work place”. Politician Shama Mohamed is of the opinion that period leave is not necessary because a menstruating woman is strong enough to work, run, exercise and “do whatever a man does at his workplace”.

While one certainly appreciates the feminist standpoint of these arguments, in reality, they put a lot of pressure on women to place their work before their well-being. First of all, women’s bodies are vastly different from men’s, and comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges. Secondly, even women’s bodies function differently.

For some of us, periods are a minor discomfort – for others, a sentence from hell. Our ability to work depends on a bunch of things like the flow of our periods, the intensity of our cramps (dysmenorrhoea), our tolerance to pain, the number of days we menstruate, the nature of the work we do and so on. Some women are lucky they have easy periods; for many of us though, even a sneeze could send us running to the toilet. Some of us can carry on with our jobs during our periods, some of us can’t.

While Dutt and Razdan’s concerns and fears are completely valid – women do stand to face some level of discrimination at work due to period leave – they’re based on a narrow and homogeneous understanding of women’s experience. Their arguments seem to overlook that periods are not the same for every woman.

Menstruation is still a taboo topic in India and we don’t talk about it as much as we should.

According to the Endometriosis Society of India, around 25 million Indian women suffer from endometriosis, a condition that causes abnormal tissue growth in the ovaries and uterus resulting in acute abdominal pain and nausea. According to the PCOS Society of India, one in five Indian women suffer from PCOS which, among other things, causes severe cramps during menstruation. These findings reaffirm that different women have different menstrual experiences and, therefore, it would be ableist to expect the same efficiency from them all during their menses.

Also, diseases like endometriosis and PCOS often go undiagnosed or are diagnosed too late in the day because menstrual health hardly ever gets the importance it deserves. Part of the reason might be because menstruation is still a taboo topic in India and we don’t talk about it as much as we should. Plus, Indian women are so often told to bear the pain because it is “psychological” – haven’t we all at some point been told by our mothers, teachers, and even doctors, to not think about the pain because “it’s all in the mind”? – that we seem to have subconsciously persuaded ourselves that period pain is not so big a deal and can be fixed with a couple of painkillers and a hot water bag.

This is another reason why we need the bill: to remove misconceptions surrounding menstruation, lift the stigma associated with it, and normalise period talk so that more women come forward with their issues and more cases are diagnosed and treated in time. The long-term goal is to help people understand that menstruation is a natural bodily function and that there’s nothing “impure” about it.

For some of females, periods are a minor discomfort – for others, a sentence from hell.

Menstrual leave will likely pave the way for more women-friendly workplaces. For ages, women have had to adjust to workplaces that are ill-suited to their physiological needs. If the Bill is passed, we can hope to see employers build work spaces that are sensitive to their female staff. This will perhaps also encourage more women to join the workforce and ensure the existing workers don’t leave.

Another possible outcome of the proposal is a re-evaluation of our idea of productivity. As a society we tend to look at productivity from a very capitalistic lens. A woman’s work around the house seldom gets the same respect as the work she does in offices does. Many believe that menstrual leave will affect the performance of a company. But the truth is that a woman who is comfortable and well rested during her menses is more resourceful than a woman who is not. Period leave will allow a woman to go about her daily work, domestic and professional, at her own pace. It will lower stress, promote health and enhance efficiency. Read this insightful first-person account by a marketing professional about how menstrual leave has increased her output during her period as she doesn’t have to travel and can work in her pyjamas from the comfort of her home.

I know there are many like me who are dying for this Bill to become an Act. Just a little empathy, that’s all we are asking.