Recently “Menstrual Leave” as a concept has made its entry back into the lives of women in India, thanks to two Indian companies declaring paid Menstrual Leave for their female employees. The idea of taking time off and resting during menstruation is not new to Indian women, especially rural women. In some parts of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, people even refer to menstruation as Raja which literally means day off. So why is it suddenly being spoken of as though it is something new to India? Partly because the conversation originated in the West in recent times, and urban Indian women began demanding similar rights. And partly because there are voices like that of journalist Barkha Dutt who are opposing such a move and talking about it in international media.
However, conversations for and against Menstrual Leave, in the West and here in India, are rather superficial. Those who support it have no reason to cite except period pain, and those who are against it cite dip in economic productivity and equal rights for men and women.
But the actual reason why thousands of Indian women, even today, continue to take time off during menstruation, is a lot deeper, scientific and worth understanding. This article explores the practical reasons, the scientific reasons and the cultural connotations of menstrual leave. And for those who have been fighting for equal rights, you will find answers to the question “what about men?”
It is not just about Period Pain
Most women who have period pain would agree that getting a day off to deal with it would be a blessing. We have conditioned ourselves to recognise discomfort only if it is accompanied by pain. Hence the argument that popping a pain killer is a good enough remedy to ‘get on with it’. Pain is an indication that something isn’t going right. A painkiller can suppress the pain, but that doesn’t solve the problem.
Even in the absence of pain, if we observed the flow of menstrual blood while engaged in physically strenuous work, we will notice that it is different from the days when we are well rested during menstruation. As it is, our body is working non-stop to flush out menstrual blood. When we add more work to it, we are overloading our system and problems will naturally follow. It is something like attempting to drive a car while it is being serviced! An exaggerated version of this problem is evident in research on menstrual disorders among sportswomen, which clearly point to them having a greater prevalence of Menorrhagia and Amenorrhea compared to the general female population. Refer to this detailed write-up to understand how sports affects periods.
Apart from the physical discomfort, a practical reason for women to take time off during menstruation is the need to change reusable menstrual products in a comfortable and hygienic manner. Despite the health & environmental benefits of reusable menstrual products, the reason it is not taking off in a big way is that working women cannot wash and change these products frequently enough. The idea of having to pack and carry home a used menstrual cloth or clean a menstrual cup in a public toilet is not very appealing to most women. A menstrual leave would allow women to remain in the comfort of their home and wash/clean as frequently as required. This would especially be a boon for school going girls who fear staining their skirts and therefore stay glued to their benches when on their period and change only once they go home (after about 8 – 10 hours!). Instead of spending crores on supplying Sanitary Pads in schools & scratching our heads about disposal, if we just allowed girls to take time off during menstruation, it would serve the purpose of menstrual hygiene & environmental concerns in a more sensible and cost-effective way.
Wouldn’t companies stop hiring women if they demanded menstrual leave?
Of the total population of women in India, only about 30% live and work in urban areas. The National Sample Survey (NSS) data for India show that labour force participation rates of women aged 25-54 (including primary and subsidiary status) have stagnated at about 26-28% in urban areas, and is around 44% in rural areas (2011).
In India, the voices that express concern that women would lose out on jobs if period leave was introduced are primarily a few urban women. Their voices are sure loud, but they do not represent the majority of Indian women. Journalist Barkha Dutt is one such who claims to be fighting for the rights of women to enter armed forces and other such combat roles. In recent times Indian Army did open its doors for women in combat roles. But that’s not the issue. The issue is that Barkha and her kind are speaking only of the elite roles which are chosen by a few women. Majority of the female work force in India is in rural India – the health workers (ASHA), the garment factory workers, the anganwadi workers, the construction labourers, the farm labourers, etc. These sectors are women dependent and will collapse if they do not recruit women. It is very much in their interest to support women’s health even if it means allowing a menstrual leave. These jobs aren’t going to be replaced by men anytime soon. Most of the employers in these sectors know how valuable women employees are, and they know that the performance outcomes will be disastrous if these jobs were handled by men. So the fear of women losing out on jobs is unfounded for the majority of women in India.
As for women in office jobs, here is a thought. Observe an average male and an average female worker in a desk job. Who takes more breaks? While most men take frequent breaks for tea/coffee/cigarette or even toilet breaks, most women are capable of working long hours at a stretch. This isn’t a complaint against a particular gender, but just the way our body and mind is created. So if we did an estimation of actual loss of work hours for an average man and woman, we might find that men take more than “menstrual leave” worth of time during work hours!
In terms of individual productivity, a woman’s physical and mental abilities are at their peak just after menstruation with the rise of the hormone estrogen, and at their lowest just before and during menstruation due to the influence of the hormone progesterone. If women push themselves and overwork during menstruation, it will have both short and long term effects on their health, resulting in more sick leaves and the resulting loss of productivity. But giving women the needed break during menstruation will actually improve their overall health and performance at work.
While women have distinct monthly cycles affecting their work ability, men have daily cycles of increase and dip due to the hormone testosterone. Testosterone in men is high in the morning and keeps reducing as the day progresses. So the most energetic time for men is morning hours, and their energy dips as testosterone drops towards the second half of the day.
Often people tend to ridicule women’s monthly hormonal cycles and the changes they bring, but we are quite unaware that men have daily hormonal ups and downs. Research by psychotherapist Jed Diamond revealed that men’s testosterone varies and goes up and down four to five hours a day. This makes men susceptible to what is called Irritable Male Syndrome (IMS). Stimulants like caffeine and cigarettes increase the Testosterone levels temporarily and that’s probably why men tend to take so many coffee/smoking breaks during work.
The longer work hours that women are able to put in and minimal absenteeism due to alcohol addiction are some of the reasons why in rural areas, the employers prefer female employees even in physically intensive work like the construction industry or agriculture.
Do we really need Sundays as a day off?
If we understood the best times for our body to work and rest, we would begin to question why Sunday has been chosen as a day off in most places in the world. In Christian dominated societies, Sundays are the days of prayer and service to God, and hence it is a day off. In India, it was the British who introduced this system during 1890s. And the reason was to fight competition from the Indian Mills since they ran on Sundays as well. Here is an excerpt from what Raja Kulkarni wrote in the Economic Weekly in 1949, in his article The New Factory Act
“The first Factory Act in 1881 was enacted… at the instance of the Lancashire mill-owners who brought pressure upon the government to fight the menace of competition from the Indian Mills who could produce at cheap rates because of cheap labour, lack of stay regulation of working hours or restriction on the employment of women and children, etc. The Lancashire mill-owners were interested in getting the hours of work and employment of women and children regulated in order to enhance the cost of production of the Indian mills which had become their competitors.”
The article “The Sunday Syndrome” published in the Indian Express in 2016 gives the history of how we came to have Sundays as the day off in India.
So the interesting question is, did people in India have a different way of a taking a day off before the British came?
Yes, we did. And in rural India, many people still follow it.
Our team has had several first hand experiences of this Indian day off during our work in rural Karnataka. We rarely found young women at home during the day because they all go to work, mostly as field labourers. This was true even on a Sunday. We used to feel sorry that they couldn’t even take Sundays off, until we found out that they did something more sensible.
In one village in Raichur, on the day we visited, the women had taken time off and gathered together to perform certain community rituals. We were surprised since we had not expected to find young women at home on a weekday. The women explained that it was Amavasya (No Moon Day) and once a month everyone took time off on this day.
In another incident when we were planning a sapling plantation drive in Bengaluru, the labourers suddenly didn’t turn up though it was a weekday. When we asked them the reason for their absence, they said that they do not plant on Amavasya since the plant is sure to die if planted on the No Moon day. We later found that the practice of not farming or planting during Amavasya is followed quite seriously in rural areas and this naturally becomes the day when male farmers too take time off. While this may sound like superstition to the unfamiliar, the farmers speak from experience of seeing and knowing that saplings planted at this time have difficulty surviving.
Amavasya or No Moon Day occurs when the moon comes in between the Earth and the Sun, thereby exerting its own gravitational pull on the Earth. We understand this in terms of the tides in oceans being influenced by the Moon’s position w.r.t Earth. This influence of the Moon extends to all creatures on Earth. In plants, the moon’s gravitational pull makes it difficult for the sap to move upwards. In human females, this manifests as the time of menstruation when the moon’s gravitational force expels the menstrual blood. Books & research which talk of how women menstruated in ancient times claim that all women menstruated en masse on the day of the dark moon. Interestingly, we actually got to see this phenomenon in an interior village called Marahalli in Uttara Kannada District of Karnataka. This village was situated in the lap of nature and far from typical human civilisation. There were only about twenty families and the houses were scattered among the hillock, surrounded by dense forest-like vegetation. When we interviewed women from different families and asked them their last menstrual date, the answer was “Amavasya”. We also noted that these women had better menstrual health (absence of anemia & menstrual disorders) compared to the other women we interviewed. Here are some pictures from our visit to Marahalli.
Maya Tiwari, in her book “Women’s Power to Heal”, writes an entire chapter on “Feminine Health & Lunar Cycles”. She writes:
“Ancient Ayurveda sages recognised that the moon significantly influences a woman’s biorhythms and that her body, mind and spirit were intricately connected to her cycles. When the cycle is in a state of balance and not impaired by the use of contraceptive pills, birth control devices, disruptive sexual activities, harmful foods and medicine, the natural ebb and flow of a women’s monthly cycle remains in harmony with the cycles of nature.”
When we follow nature’s cycles, women’s menstruation will automatically sync with Amavasya. And if both men and women took time off according to the Lunar cycles, a separate menstrual leave might not even be necessary. But, we have come a long way from it.
How do we shift our working style to be in sync with nature?
We live in times where economic productivity is more important than mental and physical well-being. We have standardised everything possible, so that natural changes in weather or shifts in seasons do not affect our work plans. What does it matter if it is summer, winter or rainy season – our air conditioned work place is always the same. The Sunday break we created is just another method we invented of standardising things to make it easier to manage. It is not related to the needs of our body.
If we open our mind to the idea of taking time off work in accordance with nature’s cycles, then Menstrual Leave is just the first step. In India, planetary shifts have often been observed as important days to take time off and rituals are planned to offset the effects of the planetary movements on the human body. Festivals like Deepavali (the darkest Amavasya) and Shivarathri (marking the start of Summer) are examples of this. The irony is that we applaud and give a Nobel prize to a Japanese scientist for his concept of Autophagy or self-starving, but we fail to recognise that the Indian society has long been incorporating the same understanding in form of fasting every fortnight in the name of Ekadashi. These are examples of ancient India’s knowledge of astronomy and its impact on human physiology. So while Amavasya was the monthly day off, other important days came to be recognised as festivals when your body and mind needed to be treated differently and holidays were declared accordingly.
The Menstrual Leave is the first important shift that we are beginning to make to work in sync with nature’s cycles. Understanding it as anything less than that would be a loss of future possibilities for both men & women to make drastic changes in the way we work.
P.S. In case you are wondering about our days off at Mythri Speaks, here is what we do. We take time off during menstruation for two days and chose to work on Sundays. Much of our work is physical field work. We feel adequately rested and energised through the month by this simple practice of allowing the body to rest when it needs it the most.