Breaking the Silence: Normalizing Menstrual Health Conversations at the Workplace

With talk around periods becoming less taboo, how have the conversations around menstruation changed at work over time?

I observed the male colleagues exchanging glances, their smirks not escaping my notice. I couldn’t help but wonder about the cause until I saw Jasmine emerging from the restroom, moving slowly toward her desk, clearly in pain. I knew immediately why the men were smiling.

Jasmine suffered from painful periods, enduring acute pain and discomfort for about three to four days every month. She had joined our office a year ago, and in the initial two months, her condition caused concern among colleagues.

Gradually, all came to understand the source of her discomfort. Jasmine never explicitly mentioned her periods, making it an unspoken understanding that she endured pain during this time. Male colleagues would occasionally jest, insisting she seek medical advice to rule out any serious issues. Jasmine would promptly decline, leaving them with a sheepish smile.

The discomfort of talking about periods when I was working

Another vivid memory that remains etched in my mind is from an organizational retreat we undertook in a historical town with temples. The evenings were structured to allow us to explore the city and visit some renowned temples before dinner.

We found ourselves in discussions about who was currently menstruating and what they should do—skip the evening program entirely or wait outside the temple. Standing outside meant inevitably inviting curious questions about why one wasn’t entering. So most female colleagues with periods would devise some pretext to opt out of the evening programme.

I had discussed this with my mom before travelling for the retreat, and she in her simplistic way had explained that periods are a natural part of life of women, given by God, therefore there should be no hesitation in entering a temple. “I’m spared from the awkwardness of discussing it,” was my sentiment at the time. Like many in that environment, I too felt uneasy discussing periods, except with my close friends.

At work, even amongst female colleagues, our conversations about periods were limited to instances when someone urgently needed a sanitary napkin or when someone’s dress had a spot or a stain. There was never a genuine discussion to empathize with each other’s experiences or provide support during this time. We never considered how to challenge the taboos surrounding menstruation. In fact, knowingly or unknowingly, we inadvertently perpetuated them.

Have things changed 20 years later?

Curious to understand if things have changed 20 years down the lane, I asked my daughter if she and her colleagues freely discussed periods at her workplace, and she affirmed that they did. She mentioned that they felt at ease discussing it even in the presence of their male colleagues, who often remained silent participants.

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One of her female colleagues, who had joined six months prior, had been granted two days of special leave each month due to her painful periods, a request she communicated during her onboarding. My daughter went on to mention that her office environment was quite progressive, but she couldn’t say if this was the case in all workplaces.

The trend is changing, but is it enough?

The hushed tones surrounding matters of sexuality remain a reality in our culture. Growing up, talking about periods was strictly off-limits. Girls and women were barred from entering the kitchen and pooja room, taking part in religious ceremonies, or visiting temples during their menstrual cycles. Nowadays, women are permitted to cook.

Is this a genuine social shift or simply a matter of convenience and practicality, considering that the joint family system has largely given way to nuclear families? Nevertheless, the limitations on their participation in significant religious ceremonies and temple visits still endure.

We urgently need to foster discussions around menstruation and other reproductive health matters without any sense of embarrassment. Women experience menstruation—a natural process that gives them the incredible power of reproduction. How can such a fundamental aspect of our existence be deemed a taboo topic?

Women should embrace and celebrate this power, and men should recognize and respect this incredible strength.

Image Source: Canvapro

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About the Author

Anjali Sakhuja

Anjali has worked in the development sector for over two decades. She has worked on issues like prevention of child marriages, adolescent health and rights and life skills education for young people. read more...

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