Shimla study underlines the need for menstrual leave for women waste workers

The menstrual leave debate has picked up globally, but waste workers in Shimla hold a mirror to the reality in local grassroots contexts.

Rani has had debilitatingly painful periods ever since she started relying on injectable contraceptives. When she reached out to her doctor for help, she was told to be patient and that “this happens, it is quite normal.” But it does make it very difficult for her to manage her periods. Not only does she have to take care of household responsibilities, but she also has to go do her job as a door-to-door garbage collector in the hilly terrains of Shimla. But however painful or uncomfortable it gets, she knows she cannot afford to take menstrual leave. For door-to-door garbage collectors like her, menstrual leave remains a distant dream. 

Menstrual leave days allow menstruators to take time off from work to rest and recuperate during their menstrual cycle. While such policies already exist in several countries including Japan, Taiwan, China, South Korea, Mexico, and Indonesia, there are few sporadic examples of these being implemented in India. 

In our ongoing research in Shimla, we engage with women who work as door-to-door garbage collectors, to understand how they can manage their menstrual cycles better. These women often work long hours, starting early in the day, for a paltry income and with limited or no job security. They lift to 30 kgs of waste and walk through the uneven and steep roads and stairs of Shimla. 

A female waste worker stands next to huge bags of garbage
Waste workers in Shimla often have to carry up to 30 kg of waste load and walk through the hilly terrain. Pic: Inayat Singh Kakar

As we spoke to them, we had the chance to observe the complexities of menstrual leave for them. The realities of their lives and their complex working relationships are at odds with the possibility of them availing of such leave and the care and recuperation that it offers.

Menstrual Leave: A long overdue promise

For decades, the pros and cons of menstrual leaves have been the subject of debate across the world. But, there is a paucity of data and research on the actual effects on menstruators and the extent of implementation at workplaces and a consensus has not been found so far.

While opponents argue that menstrual leaves might make menstruators seem like a liability for workplaces because of this ‘special privilege’ of extra days off as compared to their cismen counterparts, it could not be further from the truth. 

Menstrual leave is a means to acknowledge the specificities of women, transpersons, and gender non-conforming persons in workplaces. Without a menstrual leave policy, it is almost as if workplaces promise to cater to only the health and labour rights of cishet men alone.

Ensuring menstrual leaves would then acknowledge menstruators as workers with the right to a dignified life and health with the possibility of rest, recuperation and well-being.

Read more: Women construction workers face serious health and safety hazards at work and beyond

Varied realities of menstruators 

Where menstrual leave is not an option, menstruators have to deal with period pain and discomfort even as they work, while their workplaces require them to be productive enough. This is especially excruciating for those who suffer from problems like chronic pain, PCOS/PCOD, endometriosis and dysmenorrhea. Many menstruators report debilitating and dysfunctional symptoms for up to a week. 

Neeta, who has had an ovarian cyst for many years now, can barely move without writhing in pain during her periods. But, every morning, she braces herself to carry 10-30 kilos of waste, as a part of her door-to-door garbage collection.

For her, the only respite is that her husband lovingly takes care of the household chores when she is on her period. That way, she gets some time to rest after work. “But, not everyone has this blessing in life. They just have to plough through their work day and then come back to tackle the neverending burden of household chores,” she said.

When asked about menstrual leave, Neeta guffaws. She shares that the everyday discrimination that they face makes them very apprehensive about asking for leaves. Even when they skip work for a day, some people in their work area may complain that they have been off for 5-6 days and these women then suffer additional wage losses for no fault of theirs. 

“Besides, if we take a day or so off work during our periods, things would only get more difficult for us the next day. Who will take care of the extra piled-up waste?” she said. She explained that when they get back to work, they might have to sort, pick and collect additional weights themselves. “Or, it could mean one of our fellow workers will be asked to fill in for us. So, extra work for them,” she added.

Women like Neeta can’t wait for her menopause to finally be done with what she called “the curse of periods.” Even the women who suffer from profuse bleeding and excruciating period cramps agree that the only option is to somehow slowly finish their work for the day and get done with it. 

Rani pointed out that while no woman is a stranger to period problems, “Not everyone experiences menstruation the same way.”

A female waste worker collecting and loading garbage
“If we take a day or so off during our periods, things would only get more difficult for us the next day. Who will take care of the extra piled-up waste?” asks one worker. Representational image. Pic: Shrutika Murthy

There is a consensus among these women that menstrual leave would be helpful. However, none of them admitted to taking leaves for their menstruation. With all supervisors being men, the gender dynamics are such that the stigma associated with menstruation becomes all the more pervasive. Women often hesitate to talk about their gender-specific health needs with their supervisors, be it about menstruation or even pregnancy. Had menstrual leave been institutional, it would have been a different story. 

A two-fold challenge

For door-to-door garbage collectors, menstruation actually poses a two-fold challenge! Not only do they deal with their menstrual problems, they also handle menstrual waste during their work. 

Waste segregation and proper disposal of menstrual absorbents are rarely adhered to by residents. Shalu told us about the time when she accidentally picked up a used sanitary napkin thinking it to be a rolled newspaper and placed it on her shoulder for padding before lifting the waste bag. Blood oozed out of it all over her shoulders, and the fact that public washrooms are hard to find did not make things easy for her. 

All garbage collectors agreed that these are rather unfortunate and common experiences. Shalu also added that this was not just perilously embarrassing but also posed significant health risks. Many have had skin infections and rashes allegedly owing to handling such waste.

The absence of adequate clean public washrooms for these women to use while at work outdoors is certainly not helpful. Komal said she has had to run back home several times because her absorbents leaked and there was nowhere she could have changed. Many like her have also had to change their absorbents in deserted alleys or behind bushes. Neeta had once continued to work even though she knew her pyjamas were stained with blood.

“Sharam toh aati hai, par ab kya karein?” (We feel ashamed but what to do) asked Rani.

Some also complained of skin irritation because of not being able to change absorbents and/or clean up for extended hours during their menstruation. 

“If we work outside for long hours, should someone not ensure that we have access to public toilets? Should that not be our employer or the state’s responsibility?” asked Rani, hinting that public toilets are after all workers’ rights and indispensable necessities for lawful labour practices.

Role of collectives and possibilities for institutional menstrual leaves

Women waste workers in Shimla do have access to unions and collectives like the Shimla Environment Heritage Conservation and Beautification (SEHB) Society and the Safai Mazdoor Union (SMU). SEHB Society is responsible for ensuring door-to-door garbage collection in the city of Shimla. 

The door-to-door garbage collectors under SEHB Society are hired on a contractual basis without any job security as they are not direct employees of the Municipal Corporation. The SMU, on the other hand, is a registered Union of tenured sanitation workers (like sweepers and road cleaners) of the Municipal Corporation of Shimla.

It is largely agreed upon that when workers are a part of unions and collectives, they emerge stronger together and have a better hold of their rights and requirements. In our ongoing research work experience with these groups, we had a chance to examine how true this was. Could it help women waste workers navigate their menstrual health and well-being at work?

The collectives, mostly dominated by men, were however forthcoming about these requests for research on the menstrual health of women. After all, they have all been working together on issues and the rights of waste workers and it was safe to assume that the voices of these women would be heard.

In a meeting with the leaders of the collectives, their discomfort in discussing or listening to menstruation topics was quite palpable. We shared brief findings of our research – the basics of what women’s menstrual experiences are like and what might be of help to them. The two strong recommendations from the women were menstrual leave for a day or two, and the provision of free/low-cost sanitary napkins for them.

Interestingly, the discussion remained confined to primarily women only. The men were concerned that such recommendations, if and when taken to the Municipal Corporation, might make women seem as ‘liabilities’ for the workplace. Men would seem to be more suited for waste work.

It is not uncommon to receive such arguments against the recommendation for workplace policies that cater to the specific requirements of women. Historically, that has been a given. 

When maternity benefits were discussed in the Bombay Legislative Council in 1928, Dr B R Ambedkar responded to such arguments by saying that the employer and government must indeed bear the liabilities of female employers. It was, after all, he who played a pivotal role in Article 39(d) of the Indian Constitution that asks the State to strive for securing equal pay for equal work of both men and women in Part IV of the directive principles of the State Policy.

Menstrual leave must then be imagined within a similar lens – that it paves the road for equal rights for men and women as workers in the workplace by acknowledging and catering to their specific needs. 

The experiences of women are also a testament to the fact that menstrual leave cannot be the only and ultimate solution to effectively manage their menstruation. It needs to be accompanied by clean accessible public washrooms and disposal facilities, affordable and accessible good quality menstrual absorbents, and a culture of accepting their specific workplace requirements as women waste workers.

*All names have been changed to ensure the anonymity of the workers. 

** The authors would like to acknowledge Inayat S Kakar and Shrutika Murthy for their inputs.

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