The Lok Sabha passing the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016, guaranteeing 26 weeks’ paid leave to new mothers in the organised sector, is an enormously welcome step. Upping paid maternity leave from an earlier 12 weeks, India now claims good standing on an international stage where China offers 14 weeks, Australia 18 weeks, Norway 36-46 weeks (pay varying from 100 to 80 per cent of wages) and Denmark gives 52 paid weeks. With its clear 26-week duration, India’s policy appears simpler than even Canada’s, which offers 52 weeks leave, but only 55 per cent wages for 17 weeks. The US offers only 12 weeks, which don’t come with guaranteed pay. India’s legislation applies to establishments employing 10 people or more, also allotting 12 weeks’ paid leave to mothers adopting or having a child through surrogacy. Significantly, the Bill stipulates that all establishments employing 50 or more people provide creche facilities, allowing women to visit four times a day. Organisations must now communicate these rights to female employees via writing.
Global studies show strong links between paid maternity leave and ensuring that women return to the workforce after childbirth. For an individual, this offers the opportunity to enrich life with a child — who is ensured better healthcare — and be financially strong during a sensitive time. Economically, this offers companies a valued employee’s return, some studies showing women work longer hours upon rejoining. Socially, this means a much better chance of women staying in the workforce. For a nation, this gives more employment and earnings; for individuals, it values diverse facets of their selves. Maternity leave is ground-breaking because it respects the needs of biology, while freeing women of biological determinism.
However, the Bill does not go far enough. It only applies to the organised sector, covering 4.4 per cent of women within this, but as the debate in Parliament highlighted, over 90 per cent of India’s women workers are in its unorganised sector, fields, domestic labour, etc. The Bill is also silent on paternity leave, which some MPs rightly said was essential to redefine childcare from being “women’s work” to a shared responsibility. This change in mindset, that it takes not one parent alone but a holistic nurturing culture — familial, social, professional — is vital to change stereotypes and bring in real equality. The current Maternity Benefit Bill takes a step in the right direction, but this is still a baby step.