Written by Ayushi Agarwal
Last month, Union Minister Jitendra Singh announced that male government employees who are single parents may take paid childcare leave of up to two years to take care of a minor child. This reform seemingly promotes gender justice. However, a closer look is required to assess whether it can really pave a path for more equal gender relations.
Under the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, as amended in 2017, female employees of establishments with 10 or more workers can take 26 weeks of paid leave, up to eight weeks of which can be claimed before the delivery of the child. In the case of mothers who adopt, the paid leave can be granted for up to 12 weeks. While there is no provision for paternity leave under the Indian labour law, under the Central Civil Services (Leave) Rules, 1972, male government employees are entitled to paternity leave of 15 days before or within six months of the delivery of the child.
This is as opposed to countries like Finland, which allows seven months of paid parental leave for both new mothers and fathers; and Sweden, where new parents get 480 days of paid leave which can be split between the couple as they wish, with a minimum of 90 days earmarked for each parent.
The Indian law on paternity leave, then, is not only extremely narrow in terms of the beneficiary class, but also seems to be based on the assumption that taking care of a child is primarily the mother’s responsibility. By limiting the leave to single male parents, the latest government announcement reinforces this assumption. It marks the role of the father in child-rearing as a last resort, rather than as a matter of ordinary gender relations at home. In effect, it entrenches the same stereotypical notions about gender relations that the law must subvert.
The availability of adequate paternity leave would not only allow the father to bond with his child as much as the mother, but also promote the possibility that the child would grow up sharing a strong relationship with two rather than just one parent. From the beginning, the child would be able to witness the sharing of parental and caregiving responsibilities between the two genders, rather than boxing women into the role of caregivers and men into the role of bread-earners.
Further, the availability of paid paternity leave would mean that men are able to, and have the incentive to, take the pressure off of their wives. Placing the task of childcare entirely on the shoulders of women usually compels them to take long leave from work. This creates a structure that disadvantages them at the workplace, at best, and forces them to quit altogether, at worst. No doubt there might be men who would take unpaid leave to play their part. However, it is worth remembering that having another family member only increases the need for money, and thus, unpaid paternity leave is unaffordable, even if desirable, for most employees.
Parenting is, and should be, a task shared equally between the partners — and it is high time the law on paternity leave in India reinforces rather than rejects this. Not only would this make each parent a more satisfied employee, if the economic argument must be made, but it would also go a long way towards changing the stereotypical gender dynamics at home as well as in the workplace.
It is worth celebrating that a few companies in India, despite there being no legal mandate to do so, have introduced paternity leave policies for their employees within a range of six to 26 weeks. However, the concern for equal gender relations at home and at the workplace, of which parental leave is only one contributing factor, goes beyond simply the availability of sufficient paternity leave. After all, stereotypes and social pressures might still operate to produce circumstances where the fathers never avail of the leave or return to work sooner than the mothers.
Indeed, even in countries like Sweden, data shows that continuing prejudices about who should bear the responsibility of taking care of the child, the fear of being seen as “slacking off”, the discomfort with a “break” in one’s career while on leave and resulting change in growth prospects, ultimately results in mothers primarily being responsible for caregiving. Thus, even with the new allowance for single male parents, it is very much possible that child-rearing responsibilities are shifted to another female family member, such as the child’s grandmother.
This means that the paternity and childcare leave policy must be designed in a manner that addresses prejudices against fathers taking leave to the extent possible, and also be accompanied by active efforts at the workplace to counter such notions. The former can include options such as the ability to return to work part time during the leave to allay the concern regarding growing unfamiliar while away. A fine example of the latter is IKEA’s efforts through the “Swedish Dads” exhibition, which shows pictures of numerous fathers that chose to stay at home with their children for at least six months. Initiatives like these can significantly increase workplace recognition of the joy of spending time with one’s children, and contribute to a culture where paternity leave is both valued and preferred.
The announcement of childcare leave for single male parents, despite its limitations, does mark an explicit recognition of the fact that fathers can be caregivers. It is time we begin to see fathers as equally responsible caregivers, and in doing so, also see women as equally capable breadwinners.
(Ayushi Agarwal teaches at Jindal Global Law School)
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