India joins Norway, Canada with longest Maternity leave

Hardnews Bureau Delhi

The Union Cabinet has approved amendments to the Maternity Benefit Act of 1961 to increase paid leave for expectant mothers from three months to six and a half months. The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill of 2016 will now be introduced in the Rajya Sabha. The amendment bill seeks to increase maternity leave to 26 weeks in all establishments, including private sector. The act is applicable to all establishments employing 10 or more persons. The bill also provides 12 weeks leave for commissioning and adopting mothers and makes it mandatory to provide creche facility for establishment where the number of workers is 50 and above. At present, the Maternity Benefit Act does not provide any maternity leave for commissioning or adopting mothers. Maternal care to the Child during early childhood is crucial for growth and development of the child. The amendments will help 18 lakh women workforce in organised sector. They also help women devote time to take care of their babies and enable an increase in the women’s labour force participation (WLFPR) rate in India. The labour force participation rate (LFPR) in India is around 40 percent, but for females, it is only 22.5 percent. The gap in male-female labour force participation is such that the LFPR for rural women above 15 years is only 35.8 percent, while for rural males it is more than double at 81.3 percent, according to a 2015 research paper by the government policy think tank NITI Aayog.

On closer analysis the Maternity Bill may not be as progressive as it sounds. It further makes women less desirable as employees in free market enterprises; hiring managers would like to avoid employees who may take half a year off in the foreseeable future. It perpetuates gender role stereotypes - apparently father's don't need to spend time with newborns. Yes, the biological imperative of breastfeeding makes it more critical for mothers, but the paternal/maternal leave divide is too large to be explained just by this. Worse it forgets about single males/gay couples who may want to go the surrogacy route, thus perpetuating mainstream insistence that this class of citizens doesn't (or shouldn't) exist.

Paternity leave is a contentious issue in most parts of the world, let alone India. In a country where gender stereotypes perpetuate what is lacking is a gender balanced approach towards parenthood. A review by the Centre for Social Research for the National Commission of Women said in 2014, “…The right to paternity leave could be crucial for changes in the relationships and perceptions of parenting roles… The Maternity Benefit Act does not entitle working men such leave, and thereby does not make an adequate effort in the struggle towards a gender-balanced approach to care-giving and unpaid domestic work.” The Maternity Bill is a welcome step. Be that as it may, there is still a long way to go before India can boast about offering the sort of parental protections that Nordic countries like Finland offer. Moreover the bill does not address the stark reality that men leave the burden of bringing up children to women.