As the clamour for enhanced paternity leave grows stronger after the recent passage of the maternity leave bill in Rajya Sabha, Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi has said that such a legislation will have little impact in India, where men do not even avail their existing leave entitlements to share the responsibility of child care.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Maneka said, “Paternity leave can be considered only if, once the woman goes back to work after her 26 weeks of leave, we find that men are availing their sick leave for a month to take care of the child. Let me see how many men do that. I will be happy to give it but for a man, it will be just a holiday, he won’t do anything.”
It was on Maneka’s insistence that the Ministry of Labour and Employment mooted the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which increases the period of leave for new mothers from the existing 12 weeks to 26 weeks in the organised sector. It also allows 12 weeks of leave to mothers going in for adoption or commissioning a child through surrogacy, and encourages employers to facilitate ‘work from home’ for new mothers.
The legislation would mean that India would join the ranks of Eastern European and Nordic countries that have the longest fully paid maternity leave. However, it would be left out of the league of 78 countries which, according to the International Labour Organisation, offer decent paid paternity leave. The demand for mandatory paternity leave has come from several women MPs as well as civil society members, who contend that merely increasing the leave for mothers could be counterproductive as it will reinforce the gender norm of women being the sole in-charge of child care and domestic work.
“If men gave me one iota of hope by taking sick leave for child care, then yes, we can think of mooting a proposal for paternity leave,” Maneka said.
According to a notification issued in the late ’90s under the Central Civil Services Leave Rules, men in government service — biological as well as adoptive fathers — can take 15 days of paid leave, which they are allowed to merge with any other leave. There is no legislation mandating compulsory leave for fathers in the private sector, with many companies granting paternity leave for a week or two at the most.
It is also argued that only increasing maternity leave will further bias employers against hiring women. A recent study released by the National Commission for Women (NCW) showed prevalence of widespread discrimination against pregnant women in the corporate sector in India. Both the NCW study as well as a 2011 report by the Labour Ministry state that decent maternity leave by itself leads to mounting the pressure on women’s productive and reproductive roles and, hence, longer paternity leave is an idea whose time has come in India.
Dismissing reports that the Union government will take the ordinance route to bring the Bill into immediate effect, Maneka said that the Maternity Benefit Bill will have to wait to be passed in Lok Sabha until the winter session of Parliament.
The WCD Ministry, meanwhile, is planning on introducing “safeguards to prevent any misuse of the maternity bill”. These include making it mandatory for women to work for a stipulated amount of time before they can avail the enhanced leave. “It could be one year; we might let the companies decide on what this minimum period should be,” said ministry sources.