What it is like menstruating while at work — and what women want

Some women shared distressing incidents that serve as a grim reminder of the lack of period assistance at the workplace.

 |  5-minute read |   26-01-2018
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For Bollywood, it is a new innings with Padman — a film that talks about “menstrual hygiene” in rural India. It is a paradoxical outcome that periods, despite being at the heart of the scheme of biological reproduction, are a taboo and get concealed. A Muruganantham, on whose life the film is based, got his share of brickbats and denigration before he persevered to realise his dream of manufacturing a low-cost sanitary napkin for rural women. With this film, the problems of menstruating women will be brought into national focus — and hopefully to the notice of policymakers. But is this enough? As a 30-something woman who has worked in the private sector for close to a decade, I say no.

Preparing for a period is an event independent of class, strata and state. It is beyond the rural-urban divide as is evident from the problems faced and shared by school girls, domestic helps and working women. Recently, I had my period during my Metro commute to work, and was not prepared for the day. Thankfully, my destination was nearby and hence I did not have to undergo the harassment of menstruating without a pad for long. Though I was saved in the nick of time, I shudder to think, what if the destination was far off? Not all Metro stations have washrooms for women.

Another time, I had my period just when I was waiting at the lobby of a 5-star hotel to meet a senior executive for a job. The CEO was about to arrive, and I was not prepared. I could neither walk out to buy a napkin from the market nor sit for an hour-long interview while I was menstruating.

To my relief, the reception arranged for sanitary napkin in a nice pink envelope. The experience made me ruminate on the absence of period assistance at the workplace, where women spend one third of their day. Is it a worrying issue? Does it impact the morale and wellbeing of women staff?

mc-690_091517024315.jpgMenstrual health just can't be neglected.

Does it pose a challenge to their health and hygiene? At once, too many questions popped up in my mind.

To find answers to them, I drafted a questionnaire that asked four basic questions to check the impact and lack of a period assistance programme at the workplace. I surveyed hundred plus women in my personal, professional and social network. These women, aged between 25 and 45 and worked in demanding jobs in the private sector.

My survey had a mixed success rate — due to the taboo associated with the subject, more than 85 per cent women did not respond. But the ones who did were unsparing and candid in their responses, tearing the ungiving leather and letting the truth emerge.

  • 64 per cent women shared that their organisations do not provide sanitary napkins in first aid boxes or female washrooms.
  • 61 per cent women shared that they menstruated in the middle of their office routine. Of this, 60 per cent asked colleagues for help, 28 per cent went to market to buy pads. One respondent shared that she used rolled-up toilet paper as an alternative.
  • 80 per cent women shared that they experience painful cramps on the first two days of periods. Of this, 53 per cent women had to work due to office commitments, 22 per cent took a sick leave, and 3 per cent chose to work from home.
  • Only one woman shared that her company gives special leave to women that she could avail during her period.

Some women shared distressing incidents that serve as a grim reminder of the lack of period assistance at the workplace.

  1. Generally, a male manager would never understand the discomfort women go through during menstruation. Back in 2011, during a weekly review with clients and seniors, I got down and couldn't step out since the meeting was over a con call. When I asked my male manager for time off, he didn't let me go. That situation left me feeling panicked, stressed and embarrassed. I still treat that day as an emotional ordeal.
  2. I am citing an experience I had while I was in India. I got my period at work and wasn't prepared. There was no easy access to get a napkin immediately. Luckily, a colleague had one but a thought always haunts me. What if she didn't have any? I strongly feel that all workplaces should have sanitary napkins in the emergency kit and should make it a point to re-stock. I have changed two companies in Canada and both workplaces keep tampons, and napkins in the emergency kit. I, too, am more organised based on my experience (I keep a pack in my office drawer). About cramps? Well, I don't take sick leave every time I menstruate, I just try to eat healthy and exercise moderately to reduce pain related to cramps. That said, if I were to feel extreme pain, I’d definitely take sick leave — like any other aspect in life, I would prioritise.
  3. During a client party, I had my period and I was in trouble. I asked colleagues but didn't get a sanitary napkin, and ended up buying pads from a shop that was a couple of kilometres away from the company.
  4. It was my first day at work and I got my period while in office — sadly, I did not carry a sanitary pad and had to go around asking colleagues who I had just met. It was embarrassing.

Periods are not a challenge or a handicap but a biological event that symbolises feminine strength, youth, and the ability to procreate. They tell us that we are young women with higher emotional intelligence, instinct, compassion, and creativity (many surveys have proved this in the past).

Should periods then be considered a roadblock in performing workplace duties or an event to be dealt with care and hygiene?

What is most essential is that organisations initiate measures (stocking sanitary napkin in a dispenser or a first aid box is one) that make preparing for periods easier for a group that constitutes a significant percentage of the workforce.

It would go a long way in maintaining and improving productivity, and the emotional and physical wellbeing of women staff, thus bringing a refreshing change during their periods, in their work and their organisation. Have a happy period ????

 Also read: How Indian women use medicines to alter menstrual cycles to fit orthodox customs

Writer

Pallavi Barnwal Pallavi Barnwal @pallavibarnwal

The writer launched a campaign on change.org that is a part of an ongoing and sustained movement to mobilize support for period assistance.

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