'We want menstrual leave': Teachers' campaign in Indian state sparks debate

Issues surrounding menstruation affect girl students, even contributing to drop-out rates. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - In India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, women teachers have started a campaign to press the government to grant them three days of menstrual leave every month.

The Uttar Pradesh Mahila Shikshak Sangh or women teachers' association, which has more than 200,000 members, is demanding period leave on the grounds that women teachers posted to rural parts often have to travel long distances to reach their schools and they do not have separate toilet facilities from schoolchildren.

Ms Sheetla Dhahlan, a district president of the association, used to travel 55km daily by changing buses to reach the school where she taught. She now travels half the distance to another school, in the same district, Sonbhadra.

"Teachers are posted to remote areas. Sometimes the schools are far away from the main road. You have to walk three to four kilometres. We have to change buses two or three times. These are our problems," said Ms Dhahlan.

"Sometimes, your clothes get ruined. What do you do?"

As part of the campaign, teachers have written to their local representatives and state legislators and posted on social media platforms. The government has yet to respond.

Several Asian countries such as Indonesia, Japan and South Korea offer period leave. But surveys have found that the number of women taking such leave has fallen.

In India, the neighbouring state of Bihar has allowed government employees to take two days of period leave a month since 1992.

In recent years, a handful of companies, such as Tata Steel and digital media startup Cultural Machine, have introduced the concept.

Indian multinational restaurant aggregator and food delivery service Zomato last year announced it would allow women employees to take up to 10 days of period leave annually. "There shouldn't be any shame or stigma attached to applying for period leave," Zomato chief executive Deepinder Goyal said.

But a debate continues on whether period leave advances or hinders women's rights.

Some argue it is an important move to acknowledge problems women face during the menstrual cycle, while others believe it will further disadvantage women in the workplace, potentially impacting promotions and hiring.

"I do recognise women need rest for their period. But I am not in favour of all three days (leave). I am in favour of a support system in the workplace," said Ms Ranjana Kumari, who heads the non-profit Centre for Social Research in Delhi.

"Teachers should have proper facilities to dispose of sanitary napkins, toilets should be clean. All that needs to be looked into."

But she noted the debate was important to "normalise the menstruation cycle" in a country where there are social taboos around it.

Women are not supposed to go to temples when they are menstruating or cook. Some taboos like the one on cooking have loosened with the pressures of modern living.

Still, even in urban areas, shops often wrap sanitary napkins separately before putting them into a grocery bag, an indication of the sensitivities involved.

Issues surrounding menstruation also affect girl students, even contributing to drop-out rates.

Women are not supposed to go to temples when they are menstruating or cook. PHOTO: AFP

According to a report entitled Spot On! Improving Menstrual Health and Hygiene in India by Dasra, a Mumbai-based philanthropic foundation, "girls are typically absent for 20 per cent of the school year due to menstruation, which is the second major reason, after household work, for girls to miss school".

Ms Aprajita Pandey, founder and CEO of Haiyya, a non-profit that runs campaigns on sexual and reproductive health rights, said period leave is a good idea.

"Period leave is one of the ways to make your workplace inclusive," she said. "When we talk about period leave, we are talking about workplace equity where we are no longer covering up or ignoring the needs of people who menstruate."

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