Menstruation and the workplace: Women talk about the problem and need for inclusion

8th Feb 2018
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The stigma, negativity, and disconnect that still surround menstruation can only be overcome through awareness, feels Pallavi Barnwal.

In a society replete with taboos, it’s a no-brainer that women go through a tough time at a workplace during “that” time of the month. I have often wondered how women make it through their menstrual cycle while at work with smiles, despite the difficulty and discomfort. As a man, I haven't had much knowledge or awareness, thanks to the taboos that existed where I came from.

As I started to interact with close female friends about the problem, I started to understand the entirety of menstruation as a concept and could only imagine the experience and ensuing problems. A colleague of mine says that she always stocks up sanitary napkins in her office locker, accessible to any woman in need. Thanks to this unsaid and pre-defined unison that persists within the female fraternity, women always watch out for each other during menstrual discomfort.

But - as I said earlier – it can’t be easy.

An Indian startup’s announcement last year that it would offer a day of paid menstrual leave for its female employees brought the issue into the spotlight.

But startup enthusiast Pallavi Barnwal believes that a lot more needs to be done about this unspoken issue.

In 2015, Pallavi led the launch of a health tech startup in online psychological consultation, which aimed to de-stigmatise mental health issues such as depression, stress, anger, and emotional outbursts. Pallavi, who regularly writes on issues concerning women and children, has had a decade-long, distinguished career in the corporate sector.

Period problems

A single mother of five, Pallavi decided to study the kind of problems women face when they are at the workplace when it comes to menstruation. She decided to conduct a survey to learn more from women and reached out to women in her own circles and extended circles, asking them to speak about how they felt at workplaces during those five days.

Her findings weren’t surprising. She came across instances where women had to go out of offices to purchase sanitary napkins; others spoke about how tough it was for them with a majority of males at the workplace.

She proffers her own experience: "On a typical work day afternoon when I was making an urgent business report, I felt a mild wetness. I dismissed it at that moment since there was still a week left for my period date. I continued to work but the feeling would not go. I was impelled to stand up and check myself. My fear came true; the fear was not of periods but of no way to manage it (no sanitary napkin). That day, I was working out of a vendor office and hardly knew anyone. I mustered up courage and talked to my vendor manager, who was, fortunately, a woman. She did not have one. The piled-up work that monopolised my attention went from my mind; menstrual panic took over. I rushed outside looking for a shop to buy a sanitary napkin. The area I worked in was in an industrial complex, with no shops were in the neighbourhood. It took me 3 km and Rs 50 to hire an auto to buy an innocuous-looking sanitary napkin that seemed to ask: 'Am I worth all this trouble;?"

The survey that she conducted asked these basic questions:

  1. Does your workplace offer period assistance in the form of access to sanitary napkins?
  2. Did it ever happen that you menstruated in the middle of your office routine, but did not have access to sanitary napkin?

Conversations needed

Pallavi says she got a dismal response rate of only 5 percent; most women read her emails but chose to remain tightlipped. But 126 respondents spoke up and validated the problem by leaps and bounds. Here are the results her survey threw up:

a) 67 percent women shared that their offices do not stock sanitary napkins at work premises. About 6.5 percent women shared that their organisations provide paid access to sanitary napkins.

b) 8 percent women menstruated in the middle of their office routine but did not have access to a pad. Of these, 60 percent women asked colleagues for help while 29 percent went to the market.

After her survey, she concluded that women do not get access to the necessary help they need, when it is needed the most, during their menstruation cycles.

A few statements by some of the 126 women reveal the magnitude of the problem:

"It's challenging. But since I work in sales, which is overall a male environment, neither I can talk about it nor are they are concerned."
"Pain relievers and menstrual pads weren’t available on several occasions."
"I had a lot of pain; so much so that I could not even sit in office. But and I was not allowed to go home. I spent my whole day with great difficulty."
"On the first day of my period I had to come to office with a body ache. I tried to take leave after the first half, but the manager didn’t approve my request. So I had no choice, but to stay in office and bear the pain."

With this situation at an alarming level when it comes to workplace inclusion, Pallavi resolves to keep the conversations happening and create awareness the best way she can. She exerts that discussions should revolve around office roundtables where men and women sit together and talk openly about the issue. Pallavi wants all working women to consider this a right, one that they should be able to rightfully seek from their employers.

We, at HerStory, support her mission.

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