As the Panjab University (PU) campus is all set for its student body polls on 6 September, Wednesday, an unexpected poll issue emerged as a significant talking point in the run-up to the elections – the discourse around menstrual leave policies.
Menstruation has hardly ever entered the political discourse in university campuses. However, the status quo was broken when the National Students' Union of India (NSUI) introduced menstrual leave as a poll promise on 30 August. Two days later, on 1 September, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), too, included menstrual leave in their letter of commitment to the students.
Currently in India, only Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT) located in Kochi, Kerala, stands as a rare exception, providing menstrual leave to its female students with a minimum attendance requirement of 73 percent.
The Quint spoke to PU students and student leaders on the role of student politics in prompting discussions about women's health and gender equality.
12 Days in a Semester: What Is NSUI's Promise?
Sachin Galav, the state president of NSUI Chandigarh, told The Quint that the party "respects the holistic well-being of women students".
"Out of a total number of students, there are around 70 percent women students here at PU. But for decades, no one has paid any heed to this sensitive issue of women's health. Our promise is not just about addressing a physical discomfort, it is also about recognising and respecting the holistic well-being of women students at PU."
"So, we will work to provide menstrual leave concession of 12 days in a semester to women students on the university campus, that is, two leaves per month," he added.
In their classroom campaigns, members of NSUI, including their presidential candidate Jatinder Singh, laid menstrual leave as their primary electoral promise.
Meanwhile, Rakesh Deshwal, who's the presidential candidate of ABVP, said, "I am concerned with the problems that women students have to face, so we have decided to put this issue in our agenda."
'Only To Garner Emotional Votes': Other Candidates Hit Out
However, leaders from other student organisations claimed that the issue has only been put forward to pander to the "emotions" of women students and garner their votes.
Speaking about the issue, Manika, the only woman presidential candidate in the PU student body polls who is contesting from PSU Lalkaar, alleged:
"The issue is genuine and it needs attention, but such leaders raise such issue to seek emotional votes from women students. There is a need for the holistic development of women students on campus. When we look at their participation in student politics, we hardly find any."
She further claimed: "These student organisations are influenced by political parties and even if they put forward a woman candidate in the polls, they show her as an eye candy to garner votes for their organisation."
Another leader, Sandeep, from Students for Society (SFS), also stressed the need for a broader approach to women's emancipation.
He said, "These organisations just use this issue only for vote bank purposes. When there was an issue with the 24x7 opening of girls' hostel, such organisations were against it in writing. No doubt this issue is of importance, but there should be emphasis on other issues concerning gender equality."
Harpuneet Kaur from Panjab Feminist Union of Students (PFUS), a group advocating for gender rights on the campus, said, "I will genuinely support this issue, but my concern is: why do such issues get raised only when polls approach. Why haven't they thought about it before?"
'Good To Have Thought About Women's Health'
Women students, however, view this promise as a significant step towards recognising the challenges they face during their menstrual cycles. Muskan, a PhD student in the Zoology department, said, "Menstrual leaves are not just about taking time off, it is about acknowledging our needs. And they are required on the university campus."
Two other students, Sanjauli and Arsh, students of MSc in the Biophysics department, stated that "it will be good if it gets implemented as it really gets difficult for us to attend classes during periods sometimes."
Highlighting her views about menstrual leave, Niharika, a third-year student at the University Institute of Fashion Technology (UIFT), told The Quint, "This is the first time I am hearing of such a promise by student organisations in elections. I believe it is good that they thought about women's health and gender equality during the polls. Sometimes, we suffer from extreme pain during periods, and as a result, it becomes difficult to attend lectures."
"If they are planning to implement menstrual leave within the campus, then we will definitely support them," she added.
Sakshi, a student from the History department, says, "Yes, it is going to be an important issue in these polls as women students make up over half of the total students in PU campus. So, obviously, the issues of women students like this are of great significance for the student organisations in polls. I believe that our vote will play a crucial role in their victory."
Speaking to The Quint, Dr Simrit Kahlon, Dean of Student Welfare (Women), said, "We will take a decision after a proposal on this issue gets presented to us by student organisations after the elections. Only after that can we say anything about it. For now, we just have to wait."
(Ritish Pandit is a Chandigarh-based independent journalist.)