Last week, when the whole world was celebrating women and empowerment, India went ahead in the game and changed norms for working mothers. The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill will now grant mothers of newborns maternity leave of 26 weeks, that was earlier a mere 12 weeks.
When the bill was passed in Parliament, an ecstatic Maneka Gandhi, the minister for women and child development, proudly said, “I am very, very happy 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,” Firstpost reported.
The Bill, however, limits the benefits to a woman who decides to opt for a third child. Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, argues 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 organised sector. In India, most women are waged workers or do contractual work and face hugely exploitative work conditions. They are not even recognised 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 told IPS.
The life-altering move is likely to impact 1.8 million women in India. Keeping gender diversity in mind, we say it’s finally a moment to rejoice as the bill states that mothers will be paid full salary during absence from work to take care of their child.
“When an organisation decides to hire people and has a choice between male and female candidates, chances are that the former would be preferred because the new policy would mean the woman will take six months of maternity leave,” says an HR head of a recruiting firm, Firstpost reported.
Another social worker said, “Most places that employ women and men in the unorganised sector do not even have toilets for men and women. What are we talking about really?”
Priya Krishnan, CEO, Founding Year Learning Solutions, India’s largest corporate daycare chain, was elated to hear about the amendment to the maternity leave. “As great a step as this is in its intent, we view the passing of the Maternity Benefits Amendment Bill with both excitement as well as apprehension. Though the bill is a great start towards ensuring that women can continue to contribute to the economy of India, the apprehension is down to a multitude of unanswered questions and their potential impact,” she said in an exclusive chat with SheThePeople.TV.
However, Krishnan is not ignoring the cons that come along with this extended bill. She added, “For one, the law’s silence on paternity leave is questionable. It further reinforces the age-old social norm that childcare is exclusively the mother’s responsibility. The fact that only maternity leave has a statutory backing and paternity leave doesn’t, threatens gender diversity and equality at workplaces as employers may prefer to hire more men over women.”
She explained, “If one were to look at the Nordic countries, we can see that they have closed over 80% gender gap. The one thing that stands out in achieving this is the introduction of family or paternity leave policies for the workforce. Such policies allow both men and women to take time off from their careers for child or elder care and lets them return to the workforce at the same level.”
She added, “Further, an increase in the maternity leave to 26 weeks means an increase in the total cost to company for employers. The prominent question that lingers with this amendment is whether employers would be offered any subsidy or rebate to ease this financial burden? Essentially now a woman who is being hired in a child-bearing age is going to be seen as a more expensive hire if there is no support from the government to employers.”
Much as mothers of newborns may celebrate, the fact remains that organisations may not be open to the idea of losing a resource for so long, even if it’s temporary. “With the government not compensating organisations for extending maternity leaves, small and medium companies might become wary of recruiting women as it would be considered an added cost to the company,” explains Shachi Irde, executive director, Catalyst India WRC, a leading non-profit organisation looking at the inclusion of women in the workplace.
“Additionally, the longer women stay away from work, the more challenging it could get for them to re-join the workforce if adequate engagement and return programmes aren’t guaranteed along with the extended leave,” Irde claims. And, we believe it’s an important point.
One major fallout of this amendment bill, Irde points out, is that it reinforces the stereotype of women being the primary caregivers in their families. “We believe businesses and governments should look at revising parental laws that would help eliminate such socio-cultural biases and barriers,” she says. “Equality in the workplace is predicated on equality in parenting and workplace policies to support both men and women as caregivers.”
But she remains concerned about the return of women to the workplace after maternity leave. “It is essential to implement returnship programmes and fair performance management systems that do not penalise women for maternity breaks as well as make flexible work arrangements a business strategy for all eligible employees,” says Irde. “Companies should also make the effort to ensure their women employees feel valued, since the sooner they reintegrate, the smoother the transition back to work and productivity will be.”
An optimistic Priya Krishnan prefers to look on the positive side of the bill too. She said, “While framing the rules, our hope is that the authorities take into account not just the notional factors but have a holistic view of all possible outcomes of the act, some of which are shared above.”
With that hope in mind, we at SheThePeople.TV, are cheering on for the mothers, pregnant women and for more such empowering movements to come.
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