Updated: August 31, 2016 12:06:27 am
The women and child development minister, Maneka Gandhi, has said that she wants evidence of men taking care of children before she allows them paternity leave. “If men gave me one iota of hope by taking sick leave for childcare, then yes, we can think of mooting a proposal for paternity leave,” she is reported to have said. This is similar to her position on criminalising marital rape — Gandhi wanted evidence of marital rape cases before supporting a legislation. While the minister’s stress on evidence is well-founded and so is her concern about men’s role in childcare, should she be waiting for a change in the norm before drawing up a policy? Perhaps a substantive paternity leave will foster possibilities for a turnaround.
Although arguments for paternity leave are well-known and compelling, the minister’s reservations are best countered by lessons from precedents. The most instructive example here is the childcare leave, introduced in 2008 after the Sixth Central Pay Commission’s recommendations, for employees of the central government and, later, the state governments. Unlike maternity leave, childcare leave — as the name suggests — has no associations with biology or gender. Astonishingly, however, this fully-paid, 730 day-long leave is meant “only” for mothers for “care of up to two children whether for rearing or to look after any of their needs like examination, sickness, etc.”
The regressive notion that women care and men earn underpins this policy measure. There is, of course, no evidence of the links between the mother’s care and the child’s performance in an examination or recovery from illness. So, the childcare leave seems to legitimise the father’s absence from caregiving and institutionalises female care. A substantive paternity leave can undo this howler.
Childcare leave was widely welcomed despite the obvious discrimination written into it. As expected, it eased the employed mother’s burdens, so she had no reason to complain. It placed the father’s share of work on the mother’s shoulders, so why would he complain anyway? However, both men and women did object to certain implications of the leave, and these hold lessons for the paternity leave issue. While doing my doctoral research, I filed an RTI request to explore public responses to the provision for childcare leave. The reply revealed applications from fathers for childcare leave. The applicants in question were either single fathers or men whose wives were disabled or chronically-ill. Many such applicants had requested that men placed in “exceptional circumstances”, should be allowed to take childcare leave.
The minister’s argument that men do not use/need paternity leave is refuted by the demands of such men. The absence of a real paternity leave hurts them and their children the most, even though their understanding of the leave is utilitarian and circumstantial. These fathers also levelled charges of misuse of childcare leave by women — their charges are strikingly similar to the minister’s suspicion that men will misuse paternity leave.
The misuse argument is an old bogey that accompanies every new piece of legislation. The dowry law, for example, has been haunted by this allegation ever since its inception. While misuse by some is a real possibility, is it wise to allow this fear to thwart the multiple uses and benefits the leave promises to lakhs of families? Policing the use of the leave is impossible. But men should be encouraged to avail such leave. We could follow the example of the Nordic countries and craft the provision with built-in deterrents such as the “use it or lose it” clause.
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