menstrual leave

Is Menstrual Leave a Privilege or Basic Right?

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It is 2021, and most people agree that menstrual leave is something that should be talked about.

When you are on your period, you want the freedom to be able to go about your day in peace. Sometimes that means putting your feet up in your favorite pair of socks. Other times that means being able to take an emergency tampon break in peace. Or eating ice cream while crying your eyes out.

It’s likely that you have considered taking menstrual leave before – also known as ‘period leave’ or ‘menstruation leave’. But what exactly is it? Who gives menstrual leave? Is it actually possible to get menstrual leave? 

Menstrual leave at a glance

Menstruation is a monthly occurrence experienced by half the population. Yet, it’s a taboo no one wants to have a chat about.

According to Wikipedia, menstrual leave is defined as a type of leave where a person may have the option to take paid or unpaid leave from their employment if they are menstruating and are unable to go to work because of this. Historically, menstrual leave has been associated with controversy, as well as discrimination against women. With only a few countries enacting policies, those that did enact policies have experienced low adoption rates. Others believe it to be sexist or a criticism of the work efficiency of women.

It may seem radical to take time off during your period — but it’s not such a new idea. In fact, it’s been common practice for decades in some countries. 

“Why don’t you just take it out of your sick leave?”

Several companies have implemented menstrual leave for their employees who menstruate, allowing them to take off a day each month to recover without it being deducted from their sick days. As a result, this allows staff time to recuperate if needed, and also brings up the subject of periods at the workplace — a subject that has long been stigmatized in this part of the world. 

Take a look at India, for example

In India, menstruation is associated with deep stigmas, backed up by religious and cultural traditions. During their period, women are often perceived as ‘impure’ and kept away from social and religious occasions. Additionally, they are denied access to some religious venues, and in more conservative communities, prohibited from going into their kitchens. Moreover, access to sanitary products remains a major problem. It may not seem like much, but something as seemingly inconsequential as period leave is an important step towards removing some of those barriers, and might just be a catalyst to raise awareness about the systemic injustices that have led many Indian women to suffer in silence.

Zomato’s story

Menstrual leave isn’t always welcomed with open arms, however. 

Indian delivery platform Zomato introduced period leave for menstruating employees last year, and founder Deepinder Goyal penned a memo to his employees explaining the policy. Among the memo’s notes were the following:

“Our female colleagues expressing that they are on their period leave shouldn’t be uncomfortable for us. This is a part of life. While we don’t fully understand what women go through, we need to trust them when they say they need to rest.” 

Zomato’s decision sparked a nationwide debate on social media. Many – both men and women – brandished the move as ‘unequal’ and ‘backward’. A menstrual leave, they argued, may “undermine the role of women in decision-making responsibilities at the office”. Interestingly, one Twitter user said: “Sorry Zomato, no matter how woke your decision regarding #PeriodLeave is, it just strengthens biological determinism and ghettoizes women.”

On the other hand, feminist activists in India argued that women claiming that periods are “not a big deal” risk are invalidating the stress and pain many women do endure when they menstruate. One woman said on Twitter: “Period experiences are different for different women, and no one person can speak for all women. Those who suffer from extreme forms of it, and have for years, we didn’t choose this. The burden of not being discriminated against should not be on us.”

The brighter side

Emperikal, a digital marketing company in Kuala Lumpur, has seen a dramatic improvement in staff morale thanks to menstrual leave. 

Saiful Amir Omar, principal consultant and founder of the agency, explained that as periods normally happen once a month, the company decided to “recognize the science” and simplify the process for menstruating staff. And this showed to have an effect on employee productivity. 

According to Omar, goodwill is reciprocal. “We recognize that individuals who feel heard and understood are more likely to exceed their expected goals when they are in good shape.”

It’s also interesting to note that Emperikal’s commitment to period leave has also resulted in more women applying for positions with the agency. Within three years of implementing period leave, HR data showed that the ratio of females to males in job applications increased from 10:90 to 60:40. What’s not to like about that? Say hello to having access to a wider pool of female talent!