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The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act 2016, passed by the Rajya Sabha in August 2016, has also been passed by the Lok Sabha recently in March 2017.

Under the new Law, maternity leave is raised from current 12 weeks to 26 weeks. The prenatal leave is also extended from six to eight weeks. However, a woman with already two or more children is entitled to 12 weeks’ maternity leave. The prenatal leave in this case remains six weeks.

The Act also provides for adoption leave of 12 weeks for a woman who adopts a child under the age of three months. A commissioning mother is also entitled to a 12-week leave from the date the child is handed over to her. A commissioning mother is defined as “biological mother who uses her egg to create an embryo implanted in any other woman” (the woman who gives birth to the child is called host or surrogate mother). 

Female civil servants are entitled to maternity leave for a period of 180 days for their first two live born children.

In case of miscarriage or medical termination of pregnancy, a worker is entitled to six weeks of paid maternity leave. Employees are also entitled to one additional month of paid leave in case of complications arising due to pregnancy, delivery, premature birth, miscarriage, medical termination or a tubectomy operation (two weeks in this case).

India now qualifies among the 16 countries having the longest paid leave for new mothers. It is placed at the third position after Canada and Norway which offers 50 weeks and 44 weeks of paid maternity leave respectively.

The many benefits of maternity leave, particularly for the new mother and child, are well documented: data from around the globe shows that access to maternity leave reduces the risk of infant mortality, and improves breastfeeding rates and duration which has a positive bearing on the child’s physical and mental health. Studies also show that adequate maternity leave (of at least 12 weeks) helps prevent postpartum depression and stress in new mothers.

This is a progressive bill. According to a research, if more women join and stay in the work force, India can add up to 700 US billion dollars of additional GDP. With the rise of nuclear families, family and social support for young parents is reducing and women are being forced to give up on their career, which in turn is a loss for the society.

Furthermore, in India the number of women at entry level positions constitutes about 25 percent of the work force. At mid-level positions the number drops to 16 percent. At the senior management level the number goes further down — to 4 percent. The increase in maternity leave will help bridge the disparity and will positively impact the growth of the country.

 According to `Second Innings', a survey report by CII's Indian Women's Network (IWN), 37 per cent of women opt out of their jobs midcareer due to maternity or childcare issues. In today's marketplace, where hiring and retaining a skilled work force is one of the greatest challenges faced by organizations across industries, having qualified employees wanting to return to their jobs after an extended leave is seen as a positive move rather than a burden. With this new amendment in place, employers can actively plan ahead to be prepared for long absences thus averting any negative impact it may have on the organization's overall goals. This will also enable them to ensure a smooth transition, making it easier for women to be reabsorbed by the company when they finally return to work.

Even prior to this, several organizations recognized the necessity of supporting their female employees through motherhood. Companies like Flipkart, Accenture, Godrej and HUL had been offering six months of maternity leave well before the amendment of the policy came into consideration.

"I am very, very happy that we have made history today. This will help thousands of women and produce much healthier children. We have been working on it for a long time," said Maneka Gandhi, Women and Child Development Minister

While the government hails it as a historical moment and a reason for women to celebrate, is this the complete and wholesome truth?

While the amendment rightly recognizes some contemporary social developments and introduces provisions around surrogacy and adoption leave, it fails to address childcare leave for fathers, thus reinforcing the belief that child-rearing is solely a woman’s responsibility.

While women have become economically independent over the decades, men have begun playing a larger role in parenthood. That aside, children who have been brought up by both parents equally are shown to develop into more well-rounded individuals.

Studies have shown that women who receive support from their partners have a more successful career trajectory. To truly provide a well-rounded provision to working women, organizations need to lay equal emphasis on offering reasonable paternity leave to new fathers.

According to a 2014 International Labor Organization report, 70 countries offer their employees paid paternity leave to enable men to participate in bringing up their children. 

Some countries have successfully implemented models extending childcare leave for both parents. Sweden, for instance, currently offers almost 70 weeks of parental leave. Of this, each parent gets a non-transferable share (of approximately 12 weeks each) and the rest can be shared between them as per their convenience. The UK has a similar policy, under which women get the option of utilizing a part of their maternity leave as shared parental leave.

One of the compelling reasons for introducing parental leave is linked directly to a major criticism of longer maternity leave: that it can have a negative impact on hiring practices. With the increase in maternity leave to almost six months (paid by the employer), there is bound to be an increase in questions around the woman’s marital status and her plans to start a family. Many companies will prefer to hire a male candidate instead. One can’t ignore the current statistics of women in India in top management roles which is severely low.But if we have a system where men are equally likely to take childcare leave; we place men and women on an equal pedestal and eliminate this bias.

Another critical aspect is the coverage of the bill.

The Act and Bill cover women workers employed in establishments with 10 or more employees, and other notified establishments. However, a majority of the women workforce, who are in the unorganised sectors, may not be covered.

Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, opines that maternity benefits should be universally available to all women, including wage earners.

“But the act ignores this completely by focusing only on women in the organized sector. In India most women are waged workers or do contractual work and face hugely exploitative work conditions. They are not even recognized under the ambit of labour laws. The moment a woman becomes pregnant she is seen as a liability. The new law has no provisions to eliminate this mindset,” Krishnan

Even if the law is fully implemented, studies show that it will benefit only 1.8 million women in the organized sector leaving out practically 99% of the country’s women workforce.

“If this isn’t discrimination, what is? In India, women’s paid workforce constitutes just 5% of the 1.8 million. The rest fall within the unorganized sector. How fair is it to leave out this lot from the ambit of the new law?” asks Sengupta.

A survey by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India last year found that 25% of urban Indian women quit their jobs after having their first child. Extended maternity leave might help change this pattern, but the question to be asked is: will this be enough to bridge India’s appalling gender gap in the workforce? Or could it actually make things worse?

In 2012, the most recent data available, only 27% of Indian women worked compared to 55% in OECD countries and 63% in East Asia. This deficit shaves off an estimated 2.5 percentage points from the country’s gross domestic product every year. Worse still, India is one of the few countries where women’s participation in the workforce has actually fallen—the International Labour Organization reported last year that female participation declined from 34.1% in 1999-00 to 27.2% in 2011-12. There is also a stark rural-urban divide: In 1972-73, women comprised 31.8% of all rural workers; in 2011-12, that figure had dropped to 24.8%. For urban workers, the number has increased only marginally, from 13.4% to 14.7% in that same time period.

International Labor Organization(ILO)  attributes this to three factors: increasing educational enrolment, improvement in earnings of male workers that discourages women’s economic participation, and the lack of employment opportunities at certain levels of skills and qualifications discouraging women to seek work. The ILO report also observed that the reason behind the decline of women's participation in the workforce in India could be the result of the fact that there are just a handful of sectors that employ women. Also, there are only certain jobs that women get societal approval to do. But no study on Indian women is complete without considering their contribution to household work which goes without any national accounting. The ILO suggested that India needs an anti-discrimination policy in place, equal pay and workplace harassment are issues which require government’s due attention allowing women to have access to more jobs.

It also becomes clear that India’s problem is not just about ensuring women return to the workforce after childbirth but in bringing women into the workforce in the first place. 

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Written By Shreshta Sharma

Shreshta Sharma,an undergraduate at Lady Shri Ram College for Women.Interested in debates/discussions she writes and reads about social & political issues.

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