The Issue of Menstrual Leaves – Explained, pointwise

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Recently, the issue of menstrual leave came to highlight when Spain became the first European Union country to introduce paid menstrual leaves. In India, a student filed a petition in the Supreme Court, seeking direction for the government for the implementation of the menstrual leaves policy. However, the SC declined to consider the petition, stating that the issue falls within the purview of executive policy.

As per a few sources, menstruating women were given leave from paid labour in Soviet Russia in the 1920s. A historian even claims that a school in Kerala granted period leave as early as 1912.

What is the meaning of Menstrual Leaves?

Menstrual leave or period leave refers to all policies that allow female employees or students to take time off when they are experiencing menstrual pain or discomfort. This mechanism not only increases women’s performance after menstruation, but also comforts their overall well-being, which is a double win for everyone involved. In the context of the workplace, it refers to policies that allow for both paid or unpaid leave, or time for rest during the menstruating period.

What is the need for implementing a Menstrual Leaves system?

  • Mental and physical impacts: Menstrual pain hinders the day-to-day working of a woman. It affects not only their physical health but their mental health as well, reducing their capacity to perform during that period.
  • Increasing Women’s representation in the labour force: Historically, the struggle for women was concentrated on the taboos associated with menstruation; now, as women’s involvement in the labour force grows, the landscape has switched to menstruation.
  • Increase in productivity: Providing proper rest to women during menstruation is likely to increase their productivity post-menstruation.
  • Special Provisions for Women: Article 14 of the Constitution provides for the protective discrimination principle. Furthermore, Article 15(3) specifically states that nothing in Article 15 shall prevent the state from making special provisions for women and children.
  • Overcoming the Stigma: Official recognition of the menstrual leaves will remove the stigma around the discussion on this key element of women’s health. Historically, the discussion around menstruation has been stigmatised; which made it difficult for women to communicate about their experiences and needs.
  • Maternity Benefit Act of 1961: There are provisions in the Act to care for women during difficult stages of their maternity. However, the inclusion of the menstrual period within the purview of the act has been largely ignored by society and the legislature.
  • Reducing female Drop-outs: This will also help reduce the drop-out rates of female students from government schools in rural India caused by the lack of clean toilets, running water, sanitary pads, etc.

What are the challenges of implementing the Menstrual Leaves system?

  • Glass ceiling: It is believed that promoting menstrual leave will strengthen gender stereotypes about ‘weakness’ of females. It will strengthen the glass ceiling around women’s promotion prospects across the board due to potential beliefs that women will end up becoming liabilities to the organization.
  • Lack of legislative will: The petition in the SC also highlighted that in 2018, an MP had introduced the Women’s Sexual, Reproductive, and Menstrual Rights Bill which proposed that sanitary pads should be made freely available for women by public authorities on their premises. Similarly, Menstruation Benefits Bill, 2017 was presented in 2022 in the Arunachal Pradesh Legislative Assembly (Private Member’s Bill, an MP from Arunachal Pradesh had first presented it in the Lok Sabha in 2017). But the Legislative Assembly disregarded it as it was an ‘unclean’ topic. As per the petition, this portrays a lack of legislative will to move forward with the concept of menstrual pain leave.
  • Employment for women: If one compels employers to provide paid menstrual leave to women employees, it may impact their business or serve as a disincentive for employing females. Therefore, Employers might avoid taking in a large number of women employees.

What are the Global practices on Menstrual Leaves?

  • Spain became the first European country to grant paid menstrual leave to workers, among a host of other sexual health rights. Workers now have the right to three days of menstrual leave— expandable to five days— a month.
  • Japan introduced menstrual leave as part of labour law in 1947, after the idea became popular with labour unions in the 1920s.
  • Indonesia introduced a policy in 1948, amended in 2003, saying that workers experiencing menstrual pain are not obliged to work on the first two days of their cycle.
  • In the Philippines, workers are permitted two days of menstrual leave a month.
  • South Korea takes a slightly different route, allowing for monthly physiologic leave under their labour law, allowing all female workers to get a day off every month.
  • Vietnam’s labour law stipulates a 30-minute break for women every day of their period cycle. However, in 2020, a three-day leave per month was added, and those who didn’t take the leave needed to be paid extra.
  • Among the African nations, Zambia introduced one day of leave a month without needing a reason or a medical certificate, calling it Mother’s Day.
  • Companies across nations, such as Nike and Coexist, have introduced menstrual leave as an internal policy.

What are the initiative taken in India on Menstrual Leaves?

  • The Bihar government introduced its menstrual leave policy in 1992, allowing employees two days of paid menstrual leave every month.
  • In January 2023, the Kerala government issued an order granting menstrual leave for students in all State-run higher education institutions.
  • In 2017, two Mumbai-based companies – Gozoop and Culture Machine – became the first private companies to introduce period leave in India.
  • In 2020, Zomato introduced menstrual leave for up to ten days a year for its women and transgender employees. Since then, other private companies like Swiggy and Byju’s have also introduced similar policies.

What should be done going ahead?

  • There are additional issues that need to be addressed, such as the lack of sanitary facilities in schools and workplaces, particularly in the informal sector.
  • Till a policy framework is devised, employers should take a more women-centric approach by allowing employees to work from home on those days, providing menstrual hygiene products in office spaces, and not treating the subject of menstruation as taboo.
  • It is also necessary for period education to be delivered throughout organisations and awareness to be spread among the masses regarding the incidence and effects of menstruation, and for all to understand that menstruation is neither too insignificant to be completely ignored, nor too unique to become a source of discrimination.
  • Such change must begin at the grassroots level of society, with men, children, and coworkers demonstrating a willingness to be engaged in the dialogue in a both personal and professional capacity.
  • Men must first normalize this extremely common occurrence of menstruation and recognize it in a personal capacity-after all, policy improvements and pro-leave legislation, while useful in their own right, can only do so much to combat discrimination and insensitivity towards menstruation.
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