Webinar on Menstrual Leave Bill and Maternal Leave Bill – Do they Affect Human Rights and Equality?

In Bir district of Maharashtra, village women’s uteruses are removed so that their menstrual cycle does not affect their work routine. These women work in sugarcane fields and the factory isn’t in favour of maternity leave for expecting mothers. Due to the removal of their uterus, these women have lost the ability to bear children and their menstrual cycle has been disrupted.

On December 4th, The Unfiltered Journal organized a webinar addressing the topic of Menstrual Leave Bill and the Maternity Leave Bill and how it affects human rights and equality. The speaker, Ms Afrin Khan, Assistant Professor at Kirti P. Mehta School of Law, was highly insightful about said bills and enlightened the viewers about the same.

The topic of menstruation has always been considered a taboo to talk about in public. Ms Khan narrated her own experience being in a convent school where she was told by her teacher to not write the word ‘menstruation’ as a reason for being absent but instead to write ‘stomach ache.’ From a young age, if girls are told that they shouldn’t use the word menstruation out loud, it would make it seem like there is something wrong with them.

The Menstrual Bill was first passed in 2017 which allows paid leaves during menstruation, different from medical or casual leaves. When this bill becomes a law, it is more likely to be implemented successfully in white-collar jobs, but the situation is different in rural areas. The blue-collar job employees are paid daily wages, so it becomes difficult for them to get paid if they decide to take these leaves.

Corporations should strive towards making an inclusive workforce. One way to make it easier for women in the workplace is to install a sanitary pad dispenser in the washrooms. Zomato, a leading food delivery company, has permitted menstrual leave for women. There are very few companies which have considered women’s needs. Many companies still discriminate against women and some of them are even opposed to this bill.

The Bill states that “Women are allowed to take menstrual leaves,” and is seemingly beneficial for those women who have immensely painful periods which disrupt their work-life balance. The bill is a step forward for eliminating the stigma related to women’s menstrual cycle. Article 15(3) states that these leaves granted under the bill comes under positive discrimination and some researches prove this.

Ms Khan elaborated on a study that was done where participants were asked how they would perceive a woman if she were to throw a tampon in a public place. The answers were mostly unfavourable and negative, and the people said they would consider such a person as being impure; someone who made them uncomfortable.

There have been many studies which show that such bills, although passed with good intentions often result in greater discrimination against women than before. Many people who carry such archaic attitudes to the workplace consider women to be incompetent gender and someone who can’t compete with men.

Some commentators have criticised the bill saying that a woman can face a lot of discrimination due to the introduction of it. Companies which treat their employees like machines instead of actual human beings with needs might not see the value of keeping women in the workplace.

Many bills of a similar nature have been introduced around the world. At the end of World War II, Japan had introduced the concept of menstrual leave for the first time. In countries like Indonesia, Japan, China and the USA- a bill of the same has led to discrimination against women in the workplace. Some women have felt that they are being treated as inept and weak which has resulted in them not taking the leaves during menstruation granted by such a bill.

Although it is an important Bill, it has the potential to make women seem like they lack certain abilities. Shashi Tharoor had come forward in support of the Bill on Twitter but received backlash from journalists like Barkha Dutt. She argued that “menstrual leave ghettoises women, becomes one more excuse to close certain professional doors on women and treats the monthly period as a grand event instead of routine biology.”

The subject of Maternal Leave Bill was also briefly touched upon. Ms Khan and the participants collectively agreed upon the fact that Paternal Leave should also be introduced as parenting is a team effort. Further, the speaker also elaborated that a lot of research is required to understand how exactly Maternal and Paternal Leaves are to be executed. How many weeks should be included? Should it be different for the mother and the father? or should both get an equal number of days? It is easy to enforce a law with such details depending upon one’s own view of it but for the law to be easily accepted by the masses, extensive ground research is required.

Time and again, it has been found that only a few companies comply with mandatory maternity leaves for pregnant women and new mothers. Most of the women are forced in one way another to leave their jobs after they become a mother and many are pressurized internally by their families or externally by coworkers or the boss’ behaviour to quit after having a child. In these scenarios, the menstrual bill will aggravate the situation instead of assuaging it.

Education also comes into play in such sensitive topics. If people aren’t educated enough from a young age regarding menstruation and birth, they will continue to be a taboo and give rise to resentments, inequalities and slow down the process of development considerably. In such circumstances, if these Bills are suddenly introduced, without enlightening the masses as to why they are important, Both the Bills will fall short in achieving the desired objectives.

Women in an Indian workplace are subjected to a lot of unnecessary comments and judgments that they have to deal with, among other things. It would be a long time before India is socially and logistically ready for a Menstrual or Maternity bill. Despite having good intentions, if not executed properly, the Menstrual bill might ironically increase the harassment and bullying that women have to already face at the workplace and have their credibility questioned based on their gender.