Maneka Gandhi has got her priorities hopelessly wrong. As the woman and child welfare minister, she should be acting towards making India a more gender-equitable society. Unfortunately, her stance on paternity leave and a sweeping generalisation — that all men will treat it as a holiday — is not only unfair on fathers but ends up reinforcing gender stereotypes even more.
While trying to be fair to mothers, the minister just tilted even more the already skewed gender scale by preventing men from becoming equal partners in anchoring family duties and owning their part in caregiving.
The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. Nobody can accuse Maneka Gandhi of not trying to uplift the lot of working mothers. As Livemint points out, between 2008-2012, India’s labour courts received more than 900 complaints of denial of maternity benefits by employers. Bear in mind that this number only includes those in the organised sector and doesn't take into account the huge number of women who simply stop working rather than dragging their employers to court.
Therefore, Maneka Gandhi's move to prod the Union labour ministry to amend the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, and increase maternity leave in the private sector from 12 to 26 weeks is commendable.
The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016, passed in Rajya Sabha on 11 August, now takes into account the six months needed for breastfeeding, and also provides 12 weeks of leave to "commissioning (through surrogacy) and adopting" mothers. Nursing mothers also get an option of working from home. At one stroke, India joined an exclusive league of 42 countries where maternity leave exceeds 18 weeks.
Which is all very good. But this is just one part of the equation.
India still remains outside the cluster of 78 nations which offer paid paternity leave. Current regulations (vide a notification issued in 1997 under the Central Civil Services Leave Rules) hold that male government employees can avail of a maximum 15 days' leave. Private sector has no such mandate. Most offer nil benefits, though a few notable exceptions like Facebook exist.
The question is, why do so many nations give their male workforce paternity benefits? And should we follow suit?
As more and more women get educated, join the workforce, and become economically-empowered, the patriarchal shackles get perceptibly loosened and hairline cracks appear in glass ceilings. Still, societal changes take time, more so in India's socio-economic context. Which is precisely why legislative changes in this field should be well-rounded and complementary.
It is disheartening to note that not only did Maneka Gandhi fail to grasp the question of equanimity in parental leave policy, her reason behind not pushing for enhanced paternity leave is alarming.
In an interview to Shalini Nair in The Indian Express, the minister 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."
She then went on to add: "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."
Maneka Gandhi fails to take into account the ethos of new-age parents in nuclear family setups where men share equally the joys and burden of parenthood with their partners. They change nappies, stay awake at night, prepare the feed, are aware of the vaccination chart and so on. In short, they perform all duties of shared parenting.
I could go into countless anecdotal evidences but that is unnecessary. It could still be an exclusively urban phenomenon and the numbers might be relatively small in the larger Indian context, but attitudes are changing. The minister's assumption is unfair to this section of the society.
But her greater crime lies in the fact that by assuming 'men don't care about family duties', she is effectively relieving them of their parental duties, and consequently, putting the entire burden of childcare and domestic work on women.
In denying men their paternity leave and increasing the maternity leave, Maneka Gandhi might also be damaging women workforce's career prospects, especially in the private sector.
As a Moneycontrol report points out, in the absence of any financial support from the government, private players may be discouraged from hiring women of child-bearing age.
"It should become such that a prospective employer sees a liability walking through the door when he sees a young woman." Jessie Paul, Former CMO at Wipro and Founder and CEO at Paul Writer, told the website. "If the maternal and paternal leaves are similar for both parents, that discrimination will not be there."
The only thing that can be said in the minister's defence is that perhaps she wants to see an attitudinal change before bringing in a legislative change. And that is totally the wrong way to go about it. As a lawmaker, her duty is to usher in positive changes in society. And that can only happen when legislative amendments pave the way for attitudes to change.
In questioning the ethos of Indian men — perhaps not without justification — the minister has revealed her own Victorian-era mindset.