Monday, 24 August 2020 | Santosh K Biswal/ Uttam Chakraborty

Merely doling out period leave may not improve the efficiency of women. Understanding the demographic pattern, re-engineering the value system and social support are the need of the hour

The perennial deliberations on gender equality and women’s empowerment have come to the fore again. The school of post-modernism has witnessed and inundated us with numerous opinions whether women are equal to men. This time the debate was kicked off when the food delivery company Zomato announced up to 10 days’ paid ‘period leave’ per year for women and transgenders. Announcing the decision, Zomato founder and CEO Deepinder Goyal stated, “There shouldn’t be any shame or stigma attached to applying for period leave. You should feel free to tell people on internal groups, or e-mails that you are on your period leave for the day.”

Given this announcement, the social media was flooded with numerous opinions, for and against the move.  There are umpteen questions doing the rounds. Is it a new wave of feminism or a part of the existing activism for feminism? Or is it a corporate ploy to make women less employable? However, this narrative should not be allowed to make society digress from the discourse on gender equality, which is one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations (UN).

A startling UN study says that worldwide women do 2.6 times more unpaid care and domestic work than men. According to the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO’s) report titled ‘Care work and care jobs for the future of decent work’, data from 64 countries representing two-thirds of the world’s working age population show that 16.4 billion hours per day are spent in unpaid care work — the equivalent to two billion people working eight hours per day with no remuneration. Were such services to be valued on the basis of an hourly minimum wage, they would amount to nine per cent of the global Gross Domestic Product or $11 trillion. According to the report, “Globally, women perform 76.2 per cent of total hours of unpaid care work, more than three times as much as men. In Asia and the Pacific, this rises to 80 per cent.”

Sadly, achieving gender equality has somewhat slipped from the development agenda in India. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), in its latest data, points out that cases of missing women, sexual violence and harassment at home and workplaces are on the rise. The number of sexual harassment cases in shelter homes has grown by 30 per cent. The cases relating to sexual assaults at workplaces, registered with the National Commission for Women (NCW), are increasingly a matter of concern.

Though India is the world’s fifth-largest economy, the workforce participation rate of women abruptly declined last year, the World Bank reveals. While women constitute 48.1 per cent of the population of the country, only 23 per cent of them are in the workforce. When India’s female workforce is compared with other countries, it is 35 per cent, 56 per cent and 61 per cent in Sri Lanka, the US and Canada respectively.

In the corporate world, Indian women occupy only 15 per cent of the seats in boardrooms across the nation and only six per cent of Board chairs are women. Adding to the problem, rural women are departing from the workplace at a faster rate than their urban counterparts. Economic and cultural reasons can be attributed to the disturbing trend in the employment landscape. Worryingly, India has fared badly in UN rankings like the Gender Development Index and Gender Inequality Index.

Talking about menstruation remains an age-old taboo in India, despite the fact that there have been a few documentaries and movies made in a bid to break the silence over the issue. There is no doubt that when a private company is offering paid ‘period leave’ even in these troubled times, it has forced several private and Government entities to consider this aspect.

The encouraging aspect is that this is not the first time that something like this is being considered in the country. The Government Girls School in Tripunithura, located in the erstwhile princely state of Cochin (now  Ernakulam district), had in 1912 allowed students to take period leave during the time of their annual examination and permitted them to write it later.

In 2017, a Mumbai-based digital company had also announced that it would offer ‘First Day of Period Leave.’ The Bihar Government has been permitting women to take two extra days of leave since 1992. A woman MP in 2017 tabled a Menstrual Benefits Bill in the Parliament, arguing for two days’ ‘period leave’ for women each month.

As per global data, around 26 per cent of the global population in the reproductive age undergoes the menstruation cycle. And women in Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and certain countries are exempted from work during this time to a certain extent.

However, discussing periods and leave sanction are not isolated compartments. In fact, Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM), a holistic approach to address women’s unmet menstrual hygiene needs, is linked to the SDGs. According to the data produced by UNICEF, 71 per cent of girls in India are still unaware of menstruation until their first cycle begins. Here again, the urban and rural dichotomy is exposed. Hopefully the move to offer period leave will boost the process of MHM.

Surprisingly this move has been heavily criticised by a certain section of women. The International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISWAP) has stated that 12.4 per cent of Indian pilots are women and such moves will put a question mark on the capabilities of women in the workplace.

Public figures in a gender-agnostic structure termed the move for offering period leave as a discriminatory and anti-feminist. They say that despite the fact that menstruation can be very painful and debilitating, most women never make it an excuse to shirk work, either in the workplace or the home. Many have contended that the policy doesn’t give women a fair chance but acts as a hindrance in their battle for gender equality.

They believe that expanding such a policy would not only mean lower salaries for women, it would perpetuate a hiring bias against women. It sets the wrong precedent as it will only put more work pressure on the male employees, resulting in gender discrimination yet again. It may ghettoise women and create adversities instead of advantage in the professional landscape.

However, there is another school of thought and some women have welcomed the move. They feel it will break all taboos surrounding the issue in the socio-cultural milieu. This act will destigmatise and deconstruct the dominant discourse and enable women to take a day off with dignity instead of resorting to any pretension of sickness. There is no iota of doubt that it is a starting point, which can re-define women empowerment, resulting in enhancing their health and efficacy.

Due to the efforts of social activists like Arunachalam Muruganantham, the emergence and growth of activism in this direction has gained increasing importance. The inclusion of transgenders by Zomato in this dialogue surrounding periods is praiseworthy, too, and adds more value to the announcement as this issue has never even been considered. Society has been unfair to them in this as it has been in every other sphere of their lives.

However, merely doling out period leave may not improve the efficiency of women. Understanding the demographic pattern, re-engineering the value systems, social support and placing public policy at the right time are the need of the hour to overhaul the domain of women empowerment into an organised and organic one.

(Biswal and Chakraborty are Assistant Professors at SIMC and SIBM respectively and are working at Symbiosis International (Deemed University), Pune)