Will the State recognise women workers’ right to bleed with dignity

The Union Ministry of Corporate Affairs has sought feedback from stakeholders on the draft National Action Plan on Business & Human Rights by March 20, 2020

By Pradeep Narayanan
Published: Wednesday 18 March 2020
Will the State recognise women workers’ right to bleed with dignity. Photo: Vikas Choudhary

The patriarchal society’s attempt to control a woman’s body from time immemorial has been documented across the world and in different ages.

The fear of a woman’s sexuality and reproductive abilities has, throughout history, spurred religious texts and mythological epics. Man-made laws find ways to control and dominate a woman’s body. In the current context, not only religion but also the society attempts to do the same.

Given the opportunity to challenge patriarchy, will the State follow suit as it drafts the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights (NAPBHR)? Will it set a revolutionary precedent? 

Vaanavil Research Collective, a grass-root think-tank based out of Dindigul in Tamil Nadu, in February 2020 organised a consultation on ‘gender and business’. This was a part of the Union Ministry of Corporate Affairs’ (MCA) efforts to draft the NAPBHR. Workers and supervisors from textile mills discussed solutions to gender-related issues women faced at workplaces.

One of the many findings was that the companies provide women with painkillers to deal with menstrual pain. The painkillers cause irregularity in their periods and adversely affect their health. This finding reiterated what a Thomson Reuters Foundation study found a year ago.

Women workers stated they were given painkillers to prevent loss of work and wages. “If we give painkillers then there is problem, if we do not, we are criticised for being non-responsive,” a supervisor said. “Instead, we encourage women to go on leave. But expecting salary for those days is unreasonable”.

According to workers, a day off every month denies them the wage for that day as well as a higher monthly rate — often, a ‘leave-free month’ has a higher wage rate than otherwise. They also said they want only ‘extended rest hours’ and unrestricted access to toilets during menstruation, which are not allowed by companies. 

The situation is not very different in other workspaces such as farms and plantations. Recently, Healthians, a testing-lab company, launched a petition to ban uterus-removal surgeries in rural areas.

It cited hundreds of sugarcane farm workers being forced to remove their uterus so that they do not lose out on productivity in workspace during menstruation.

An interesting video put out by them states: “The workers were not only denied paid leave for the hours they do not work but are also fined for their absence by the company citing additional work burden on other workers”.

A recent report by Down to Earth also raised this issue and spoke about frequency of hysterectomies recommended by doctors and the permanent health risks it posed.

Almost 10 years after a uterus-removal scam was first unearthed in Bihar, there is still no adequate legislative remedy for coercive uterus removal. This indicates complacency in the healthcare system in treating women’s health.

The absence of toilets on farms and greater distance to toilets, because of which women workers refrain from repeated toilet breaks for fear of losing productive time, are common feedbacks that women workers across value chains shared. As a violation of human rights, they are, somehow, ignored. 

At the outset, discussing menstruation in such work contexts is taboo. When it does get discussed, solutions stem from a lens of protection, rather than rights.

Garment workers who attended the Vaanavil consultations said supervisors dismiss the idea of additional rest hours, saying it would entail a woman worker having to do the ‘uncomfortable’ task of informing her male supervisors that she is menstruating.

Additionally, they said, revealing that she is menstruating to other colleagues could also mean potential isolation during lunch hour. Thus, the management takes refuge in societal factors to not provide solutions instead of coming up with progressive provisions that might also break the taboo. 

At the Sanitation Action Summit 2016, organised by Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, a group of visually challenged girls discussed how families recommend hysterectomy as a solution to the challenges of dealing with menstruation.

“We are often pressured by our families to remove our uterus so that we don’t have to deal with menstruation every month”, a young adolescent girl said.

Girls living with disabilities, especially those with an intellectual disability, are often convinced or coerced for uterus removal to make their lives and those of their guardians more ‘comfortable’.

The self-assurance with which the society exercises control over the bodies of women in general, and menstruating women in particular, derives from this patriarchal role of protection. 

In February 2020, 68 women studying in a college in Bhuj, Gujarat, were asked to remove their underwear to prove they were not in their periods. The college follows sect rules, which state: “Students having periods will not stay inside the hostel room, but in the basement area. They cannot socialise or enter the kitchen or place of worship. They have to maintain separate belongings, including utensils and cleanse them after the period is over. During menstruation, they have to sit in the last benches in the classroom.”

A complaint registered against the college authority focused on the way it treated the students inappropriately, but did not question the discriminatory rules it follows. The college authority claimed it had to follow temple rules as the campus included a temple.

It is to challenge this line of reason that we lost an opportunity last year. When the Supreme Court of India delivered its judgment on the entry of menstruating women into the Sabarimala temple, a progressive judgment with the potential to address the taboo around menstruation got snuffed out in communal discourse.

The Devaswom Board president once stated: “Now there are machines which can scan bodies and check for weapons. There will be a day when machine is invented to scan if it is the right time for a woman to enter the temple. When that machine is invented, we will talk about letting women inside.”

Once again, an attempt was made to justify the taboo, instead of questioning it. An affidavit filed by the Thanthri of Sabarimala says:

I submit that as part of observing vrutham (fast), the person going on pilgrimage to Sabarimala separates himself from all family ties and becomes a student celibate who is under Shastras banned any contact with females of the fertile age group. Everywhere, when somebody takes on the vrutham, either the women leave the house and take up residence elsewhere or the men separate themselves from the family so that normal Asauchas (pollution) in the house do not affect his vrutham. The problem with women is that they cannot complete the 41 days vrutham because the Asaucham of periods will surely fall within the 41 days. It is not a mere physiological phenomenon. It is the custom among all Hindus that women during periods do not go to Temples or participate in religious activity. This is as per the statement of the basic Thantric text of Temple worshipping in Kerala Thanthra Samuchayam, Chapter 10, Verse II.

The Court stated there was a need to understand that “Scriptures and customs merge with bewildering complexity into superstition and dogma”. The Court made the Rule 3 (b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965 (which states that women at such time during which they are not by custom and usage allowed to enter a place of public worship) unconstitutional.

The court challenged patriarchy by differentiating “between religious practices that are essential and integral part of religion and such practices that although religious may have sprung from superstitious belief”.

In this regard, some statements from the apex court on menstrual taboo are significant to address the root issue. The court said: “The social exclusion of women, based on menstrual status, is a form of untouchability, which is an anathema to Constitutional values. Notions of ‘purity and pollution’, which stigmatise individuals, have no place in a Constitutional order.”

The expectation from the State, be it through the judiciary or through the legislative, is to challenge patriarchal norm, rather than finding solutions around those norms. 

In the context of the NAPBHR, will the State rise to the occasion and call out norms that violate human rights by being based on social conditioning? Or will the state, yet again, take safe positions to uphold these traditions?

If rules of patriarchy are going to define how the views of women workers are to be judged, then it will be business as usual once again. The grammar of negotiations has to change, or else the state will end up reaffirming status quo, albeit in newer and more regressive ways. 

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