• New Maternity Benefit Act: Is it really in favour of women?

    Under the new Law, maternity leave is raised from current 12 weeks to 26 weeks. This makes India a part of a small group of countries with most progressive maternity leave policies. The prenatal leave has also been extended. 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 amended Law facilitates ‘work from home’ options for nursing mothers once the paid leave-period is over. It has made crèche facilities mandatory in establishments with 50 or more employees.

    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 (the woman who gives birth to the child is called host or surrogate mother) is also entitled to a 12-week leave from the date the child is handed over to her. The Act further requires an employer to inform a woman worker of her rights under the Act at the time of her appointment. Female civil servants are entitled to maternity leave for a period of 180 days for their first two live born children.

    But if one is to critically analyse the bill does it really empower women?

    The bill only focuses on women in the organised sector which is just 5 per cent of the entire workhouse. It completely overlooks the women working in the unorganized sector as contractual labour, farmers, self-employed women and housewives

    Second, the legislation does not mention anything on the provision of paternity leave, thus putting the onus of care giving completely on the mother. As nuclear families are becoming a norm it is imperative that both parents have to contribute in taking care of the kids.

    Third, on the topic of surrogacy the bill states that a person adopting (commissioning mother) the baby post-surrogacy is entitled to maternity leave, but the government has also passed another legislation which makes it impossible to commission surrogacy.

    Finally, in a country like ours where the employer mind-set has often been regressive, an absence of 26 weeks poses additional challenges in terms of skill and knowledge management; more so in case of medium and small enterprises, therefore it may give rise to hesitation in hiring female candidates.

    While we appreciate the women-friendly measures that are aimed at removing gender inequality at workplace and bringing down maternal and infant mortality, careful deliberation is needed on the gaps left in the amendment of this 46-year-old law.