Smriti Irani’s ‘Handicap’ Menstrual Leave Stance Needs Revaluation?

Union Women & Child Development Minister Smriti Irani's statement challenging the notion of menstruation as a "handicap" and rejecting the need for a specific policy on "paid leave" has ignited a broader conversation about menstrual policies in India.

Oshi Saxena
New Update
Smiriti Irani

Union Women & Child Development Minister Smriti Irani

Menstruation, a natural and inevitable aspect of a woman's life journey, has long been a subject of societal silence and taboo. The recent statements by Union Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani in Rajya Sabha, stating that menstruation is not a "handicap" and doesn't warrant a specific policy for "paid leave," have reignited the debate on menstrual leave in India. This comes in response to a question raised by Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) member Manoj Kumar Jha regarding the menstrual hygiene policy in the country. However, her declaration sparks a critical conversation about the varied experiences of menstruating individuals, the need for provisions like menstrual leave, and the global landscape of menstrual policies.


Addressing the Rajya Sabha, Irani asserted that menstruation is a natural part of women's life journey and should not be a basis for denying equal opportunities. Irani, a prominent figure in the Indian government, asserted that framing menstruation as a handicap could lead to the denial of equal opportunities for women. "As a menstruating woman, menstruation and the menstruation cycle is not a handicap; it’s a natural part of women’s life journey," she declared.

"Menstruation, not handicap, no need for paid leave policy"

Irani highlighted that a small proportion of women may experience severe dysmenorrhea, but these cases are manageable with medication. Irani firmly stated that there is no proposal under consideration by the government to make paid menstrual leave mandatory for all workplaces.

“A small proportion of women/ girls suffer from severe dysmenorrhea or similar complaints; and most of these cases are manageable by medication.”

However, the experiences of menstruating individuals vary significantly. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, more than half of menstruating women experience period pain, and for some, it can be so severe that normal activities become impossible. However, she also recognized the broader issues surrounding menstruation—the silence, shame, and social taboos that restrict mobility and freedom for menstruating individuals.

The Draft Menstrual Hygiene Policy & Government Initiatives


In October, the government released a draft Menstrual Hygiene Policy, advocating for inclusivity and recognizing the diverse needs of the workforce. The policy proposes flexible working arrangements, such as work-from-home or support leave, to accommodate the specific needs of individuals during menstruation. This proactive approach aims to foster an environment that supports the well-being and productivity of all individuals while breaking down societal stigmas associated with menstrual cycles.

During the parliamentary session, concerns were raised about potential risks associated with sanitary napkins due to certain substances used in their production. Irani responded by highlighting the availability of affordable sanitary napkins through Jan Aushadi Kendra. Additionally, she addressed the disposal of sanitary products, citing national and state protocols initiated by the Jal Shakti ministry.

In a written response, the ministry outlined various schemes promoting menstrual hygiene, particularly among adolescent girls aged 10–19 years. The Scheme for Promotion of Menstrual Hygiene, under the National Health Mission, aims to raise awareness and is implemented through State Programme Implementation PlansThe Swachh Bharat Abhiyan also plays a role, with the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation developing National Guidelines on Menstrual Hygiene Management for rural areas.

India's Current Stance and State-Level Initiatives

Irani's remarks coincide with the absence of a nationwide menstrual leave policy in India. Despite a draft Menstrual Hygiene Policy proposing leave provisions, the government, as stated by Irani, is not considering mandatory paid menstrual leave for all workplaces. The Supreme Court's recent refusal to entertain a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) on menstrual leave highlights the challenges in achieving comprehensive government-led policies. The Menstrual Benefits Bill, 2017, proposed by MP Ninong Ering, remains unpassed, highlighting the challenges in translating good intentions into actionable policies. However, certain states like Bihar and Kerala have taken steps to address this gap, implementing menstrual leave policies as far back as 1992.

Private companies in India, including Zomato, Swiggy, and Byju’s, have voluntarily introduced menstrual leave policies, showcasing a proactive approach. However, the absence of legislative mandates means the responsibility for addressing the specific needs of female employees falls on individual workplaces. Corporate initiatives, while commendable, cannot substitute for the need for standardized and universally applicable policies. The question arises: should it be a matter of choice or a statutory right?


Global Perspectives on Menstrual Leave

Spain's recent legislative move, becoming the first European country to pass a paid menstrual leave law, serves as a reference point in the global context. Other countries, including Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, South Korea, and Zambia, have established varying policies.  These global examples showcase the diverse strategies employed to address the impact of menstruation on the workforce. The question arises: Should India follow suit and establish a comprehensive national framework?

Addressing Societal Norms

The absence of a clear policy direction at the national level creates challenges, particularly for women in the informal sector. However, the conversation about menstrual health extends beyond the provision of leave. Societal taboos around menstruation limit girls' and women's lives, including restrictions on eating, cooking, visiting places of worship, participating in social events, and sleeping arrangements during menstruation days. 

The societal taboos surrounding menstruation contribute to the perpetuation of discrimination and hinder open conversations. Moreover, the difficulty of accessing sanitary pads remains a significant challenge, especially for marginalized communities. Despite the government's move to scrap the 12% tax on sanitary products in 2018, accessibility remains a concern. 

The National Family Health Survey 2015-2016 revealed that only 36% of India's 355 million menstruating females use sanitary napkins, while the rest resort to using old rags, husk, ash, leaves, mud, and soil, posing severe health risks


Overcoming these taboos is a critical step toward creating an environment where women feel supported and empowered to manage their menstrual health without fear of stigma. It encompasses tackling social taboos, ensuring access to affordable and quality sanitary products, and educating girls about menstruation. 

The Fifth National Family Health Survey (2019-2021) revealed positive trends, with around 90% of women with 12 or more years of schooling using safe period products in 17 states and Union territories.  However, these strides, while commendable, do not address the crucial issue of menstrual leave policies in the workplace.

The discussion also must evolve to be inclusive, considering the needs of differently-abled individuals, transgender men, and others who menstruate. The focus should not merely be on addressing the symptoms but on creating an environment that empowers and supports menstruating individuals throughout their life cycles.

The Path Forward: Inclusive Policies and Education

Irani's take that menstruation is not a "handicap" prompts a closer and more comprehensive look at the policies governing workplace equality. Acknowledging the varying degrees of discomfort and pain is pivotal in crafting policies that genuinely empower women in the workplace. It's crucial to foster an environment where women feel supported, understood, and free from judgment during their menstrual cycles, ensuring that women can actively participate in the workforce without undue hindrance.  

The absence of comprehensive policies not only perpetuates the challenges women face but also contributes to a culture of silence that inhibits progress. Legislation not only sets a standard but also sends a powerful message about societal values and expectations. The reluctance or delay in passing such legislation might inadvertently perpetuate the existing stigma around menstruation.

Policies need to go beyond legal frameworks and address cultural barriers that perpetuate discrimination against menstruating women. How can policies actively contribute to dismantling age-old taboos and fostering a more inclusive and understanding society?

While legislative efforts are underway in some states and private companies are taking the lead, a comprehensive national framework is imperative. Recognizing menstruation as a natural process is not enough; policies must promote inclusivity, equality, and the overall well-being of women in the workforce.

The journey toward ending period poverty and achieving period equity is lengthy, but with continued efforts, it becomes evident that menstrual health is not just a women's issue; it is a societal issue that requires collective and sustained efforts for lasting change.

Views expressed are the author's own.

smriti irani Menstruation menstrual leave policy