Devleena S. Majumder often heard women in her organization complain about intense period cramps and discomfort they felt each month. These recurring conversations steered Culture Machine, a young media company in India, to announce an optional First Day of Period (FOP) Leave for all its female employees starting this month.
The announcement was soon followed by a petition to India’s Ministry of Woman and Child Development and Human Resource Development to make FOP Leave a nationwide policy.
“The idea is also to break the taboo,” said Majumder. “Why so much hush-hush about periods?”
In India, menstruation is frequently tied with religion and a woman’s sanctity. In several communities, girls are not allowed to partake in religious activities or cook in their own homes during their period.
“The social taboo and awkwardness associated with menstruation has resulted in negligible conversation around the subject,” said Sarbani Sen, the Director of Nielsen India, as part of a 2016 study on the impact of menstruation taboosin the country.
After Culture Machine’s initiative, several Indian men and women took to social media to support the FOP Leave petition while others called it a “silly idea.”
“Somewhere along the way, a dialogue has begun,” said Faraz Arif Ansari, a 30-year-old filmmaker based in Mumbai, who actively supports the petition.
“I don’t know what I’d have done being a man,” he added, mentioning the physical and emotional discomfort some of his female friends experienced during their periods.
But 42-year-old Oindrila Roy, an advertising professional living in Mumbai, called the FOP Leave a “highly regressive idea.”
“It’s another avenue to create discrimination at work,” said Roy. “We don’t need one more reason to create a gender divergent workforce.”
At present, countrywide menstrual leave policies exist in Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Zambia and Taiwan while several individual companies including Coexist in Britain, and Nike also offer menstrual leaves to their female employees. In March 2017, the Italian parliament contemplated national menstrual leaves as well.
“It’s quite progressive — taking into consideration the rights of women,” said Kwang-yin Liu, a 33-year-old media professional based in Taipei City, Taiwan.
Liu was surprised when she recently found out that Taiwan was one of only five countries in the world with an active menstrual-leave law.
“There is a prerequisite for this to work,” Liu added, “and that is for people to trust each other.”
“If a woman feels she needs it, she should have it,” said Rituparna Chatterjee, Deputy Editor of Huffington Post India, who went on to write an essay about her painful periods to emphasize on the importance of this petition for some women.
Chatterjee feels that having a menstrual leave would “enable the process of discussion” in a huge country like India which is otherwise distraught with taboos surrounding menstruation.
“I see a lot of lackadaisical, downright callous attitude toward women who have really bad period pain,” she added. “It’s high time we spoke about this.”
Taking inspiration from Culture Machine, Gozoop, a digital media company in Mumbai, and Mathrubhumi, a major Kerala media group, also announced menstrual leaves for their female employees.
“From an idea perspective, it’s a great idea,” said Dhirendra Pratap Singh, co-founder of Milaan, a nonprofit that started an initiative to make schools menstrual friendly in the villages of the state of Uttar Pradesh in India.
Singh is uncertain of the effect of a nationwide menstrual leave policy especially because “businesses are driven by market sources.”
“Business, as a world, doesn’t look at women as competitors,” Singh said, stressing that this leave might make it even more difficult for women to find jobs.
Even in countries that provide menstrual leaves by law, women are not comfortable taking these leaves as often for the fear of being perceived as incompetent.
“It’s a slow process for women to be considered equal,” said Liu, adding that female employees in Taiwan’s private sector rarely opted for menstrual leaves because of “job insecurity.”
Taiwan-based overseas sales worker Amanda Lee, 26, agreed. Lee admitted to suffering from severe period pain almost every month.
“Part of the reason why I don’t take menstrual leaves is because I don’t want to make other colleagues think that I am weak or not working hard,” she said.
Amid several contradicting views, the FOP Leave petition started by Culture Machine’s women’s and lifestyle channel — Blush, has already collected more than 29,000 signatures.
Ecstatic about the widespread support that the FOP Leave petition has garnered, Majumder said, “It’s a gesture, not just a policy, to support women.”
Chatterjee believes this petition is encouraging people across India to have a logical conversation about menstruation and policy-making.
Looking forward to a subsequent change in the country’s perception of periods, she said, “If you talk about it more, you take the stigma out of it.”