The Labour Ministry, on the recommendation of the Ministry of Women and Child Development, will amend the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, to increase maternity leave in the private sector from 12 weeks to 26. This is being done to factor in six months of exclusive breastfeeding required for a child’s physical well-being. There is silence, however, on paternity/parenting leave in the private sector. In emphasising only on the maternity aspect without addressing the issue of parenthood, the proposed change in the law ignores the highly skewed gender distribution of unpaid work in India.
In 1997, the Central Civil Services Leave Rules brought in paternity leave for men in government service. Those with fewer than two surviving children are allowed 15 days of fully-paid leave which may be combined with other leave. The provision was extended to adoptive fathers in 2009. For the private sector, though, policymakers failed to see the link between division of labour at home and equality at the workplace. This, despite separate reviews of the law by the Labour and WCD Ministries making a compelling case for introducing the concept in India.
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 Labour Ministry’s four-year-old report acknowledged that for women, decent maternity leave alone “results in mounting a very huge pressure of family, childcare responsibilities as well as demands of workplace”.
In the absence of a legal framework, the matter is left to individual companies. In most cases, such leave to male employees, if granted, is restricted to a week or two. In India, one of the best is Facebook, which recently extended the four-month paid paternity leave available to employees in the US to the company’s offices across the globe.
Since Sweden pioneered the concept four decades ago, paternity leave has been enshrined in the laws of 78 of 167 countries for which the International Labour Organisation has information. But the take-up of parental leave is in many cases highly gendered, with mothers availing it much more than fathers. Sweden, for instance, discovered in 1995 that men did not avail of even 10% of their eligibility. The country has constantly fine-tuned its policy since then, from reserving one month of parental leave as an exclusive ‘daddy’s month’, to 16 months of paid parental leave, of which three months have to be taken by the father before the child’s eighth birthday.
Several countries have amended laws to make the leave available to fathers non-transferable, compulsory or incentive-driven. Iceland, Norway, Portugal and Germany, besides Sweden, have registered remarkable improvement in take-up rates among men by tweaking legislation over time.
ILO figures show Indian women on average spend 297 minutes daily on unpaid work, mostly caring for children or elders; the average male, on the other hand, puts in just 31 minutes. No wonder India is bucking the global trend of improved gender parity in labour force participation. The proportion of female labour force participation in India is just 27%, as compared to 79.9% among men.
As the practice of equally shared parenting fast gains traction in the West, India could pave the way for attitudinal change by making changes on the legislative front. This would allow fathers to be just as engaged in childcare, while enabling women to balance their productive and reproductive roles.