A look at the abysmal conditions faced by menstruating women in the Indian informal sector, with a focus on the garment industry
5 minutes read
Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM), as defined in 2012 by a Joint Monitoring Program of the WHO and UNICEF, refers to, “Women and adolescent girls using a clean menstrual management material to absorb or collect menstrual blood, that can be changed in privacy as often as necessary for the duration of a menstrual period, using soap and water for washing the body as required, and having access to facilities to dispose of used menstrual management materials.” However, for the 91% of women who make up the Indian informal economy, adequate provisions for MHM at the workplace remain a dream.
In a country where menstruating women are believed to be impure and continue to be excluded from social and religious gatherings, it is hardly a surprise that welfare measures rarely benefit those employed in India’s unorganized sector. Since employers in the informal sector don’t usually have a legal obligation to provide women a suitable workplace environment for their sanitation-related needs, women’s MHM-related requirements, more often than not, aren’t perceived as a priority by them.
This means, despite heavy cramps and headaches, while knowing fully well that they have no safe place to properly put on or change their menstrual materials, women have to come to work because they can’t afford to miss it.
The Indian garment industry, which is largely informally organized under private owners, houses one of the worst conditions. First off, the workplaces seldom have the required number of toilets, and the very few toilets (also with inadequate facilities) that are available are purposefully left dirty so that workers are too disgusted to use them.
But it doesn’t end here, because as suppliers come under more and more pressure from big brands to produce faster and cheaper, they push laborers to work longer and harder without breaks or even a chance to go to the toilet. In fact, as per a 2016 study by charity Community Awareness Research Education Trust (CARE-T), workers get barely five minutes a day to use the restroom.
Thus, from toilet breaks to periods, female workers’ lives come to be tightly controlled by systems and processes designed to keep the production going as India’s garment sector faces ever greater demands from Western brands. This severely affects the needs of menstruating women who have to wear the same absorbent for hours, typically resulting in bacterial infections, urinary tract infections, and reproductive diseases significantly contributing to reproductive health morbidity.
Other than this, fear and poverty often force the female workers to resort to easily and freely available unhygienic options such as, using old, dirty rags discarded in the factories, ash, newspaper, hay, sand or even cow dung. According to a 2019 Thomson Reuters Foundation expose, women in Tamil Nadu’s multi-billion-dollar garment industry were found to be given unlabeled drugs at work for period pains, and more than half the interviewees said their health suffered.
The fear of missing work and losing wages due to periods was a major worry for many female workers. But instead of being given sanitary pads or allowed longer bathroom breaks, women were handed pills that stop their periods and were harassed if they worked slowly.
The workers were always told to swallow the pills in front of the overseer, never knowing the name of the drugs or being warned about possible side-effects. Many of the women, most of whom were aged between 15 to 25, said it took them years to realize the damage the medication had done, with health problems ranging from depression and anxiety, to urinary tract infections, fibroids and miscarriages.
Sudha, a female worker now in her 20s, said frequent gynecologist visits had wiped out her savings while it remained a struggle to stitch up to 400 parts of clothing daily. “I have learnt to ignore my aches and pains when I go to work. I also stay away from any pills,” she says, holding a faded folder full of doctors’ notes and medical prescriptions.
According to James Victor, head of labor rights charity Serene Secular Social Service Society, an organization working with spinning mill workers, “These girls have proper menstrual cycles when they are at home and things go wrong only after they join work.”
Since the leadership in the industry is dominated by men, with female workers in weak bargaining positions where they are easily replaceable, along with the stigma attached to menstruation, the women can neither raise their voices against the injustices they face nor can they express their problems to their male supervisors.
Hence, every time of the month, women have to grapple with mental, emotional and physical stress and anxiety that comes with changing menstrual materials. Any shortcomings further invite physical or verbal abuse, wage cut or even the loss of jobs. While some women may choose to miss hours or entire days of work rather than attempt to manage menstruation in such difficult environments, this in turn impacts their own income, making the burden, either way, theirs to bear.
A lot of the responsibility for change falls on individual employers and companies. But for there to be any truly effective change, initiatives in the direction of betterment have to come from the parent brands and companies themselves. Companies must jointly invest towards building systems for better working conditions in their factories. Examples of such initiatives are already available, such as the initiative of Providing Opportunities to Women on Equal Rights (POWER) Project in India by Marks & Spencer and some other apparel brands, which promotes a safe workplace and empowers women workers in the manufacturing units of their supply chain.
In an example from India, a South Indian manufacturer, Laj Exports joined forces with Swasti Health Catalyst, a non-profit organization with expertise in creating and implementing worker health and well-being programs, in 2018. This was done to offer women at the company information on topics like hygiene, sanitation, reproductive health, and nutrition, in a program run by the employees themselves. At the start of the program, approximately 35 women workers were selected by factory management to be peer educators who underwent intensive training on these topics in order to disseminate the information to fellow employees and answer questions.
Furthermore, Laj Exports, which supplies fabric largely to brands like Lee, Wrangler, and Guess, and comprises of roughly 70% women workers, also has an on-site clinic staffed by a nurse, trained through Swasti, to provide health information and services such as menstrual cramp medication, sanitary napkins, and counseling on family-planning, including talking through contraception options.
Consequently, the rollout of the wellness program and clinic has not only meant better information for the workers but also a reduction in employee turnover rate. This goes to show that good health and well-being isn’t just good for the workers, rather that people-centric standards such as these are beneficial to the company as a whole.
We must also always remember that any kind of change starts with us. Be it somebody with a company having female employees or just an individual who has a female domestic helper, it is indeed the responsibility of the employer to make sure that their employees aren’t robbed of the minimum basic dignity that, as human beings, is their right.
- Feminism in India: Menstrual Hygiene Management For Women Workers In Indian Textile Industry
- Reuters: Indian factories found endangering seamstresses’ health with illegal pills
- United Nations Foundation: The Women Behind The Clothes: Worker Health And Well-being In The Indian Apparel Sector
- NCBI: Managing Menstruation in the Workplace: an overlooked issue in low- and middle-income countries