Maternity Bill fails to keep working mothers' interest in forefront

The Maternity Benefit Amendment Bill, 2016 was passed by the Lok Sabha on 9 March, with impeccable timing — a day after the International Women’s Day. With the Bill in place, expectant mothers, employed in the organised sector, can now avail 26 weeks of paid maternity leave. Previously, under the 1961 Act, paid maternity leave was for 12 weeks. The Bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in August last year, and currently, it awaits assent of the President for it to be completely implemented for working women in both public and private establishments.

The Bill will benefit about 1.8 million working women in the country and Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the Bill as a 'landmark moment', while Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi called the piece of legislation 'historic', stating that “this will help thousands of women and produce much healthier children”.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

The Bill is a positive step forward in many ways, it extends the ambit of the law to include a progressive definition of motherhood. One of the principal amendments is the introduction of the concept of “commissioning mothers” - who opt for surrogacy - and the allied maternity benefit for such mothers.

In addition, the Bill also allows for 12 weeks paid leave for those mothers who adopt children under the age of three months. The leave will commence from the date the child is handed over to the adoptive parent or the commissioning mother. Lastly, the Bill mandates the legal provisions for setting up of creche facilities in certain types of establishments with more than 50 employees. Once converted to law, the Bill will make India the third country - after Canada (50 weeks) and Norway (44 weeks) - in the world to provide for such duration for maternity leave.

The Amendment Bill, while a laudable move forward, has its flaws, and does not, in my opinion, keep the interest of working mothers at the forefront, as it claims to do. Firstly, the Bill is exclusionary to women in the unorganised sector; therefore, the benefits do not apply to women, such as daily wage labourers, farmers, contractual workers who already work in non-compliant, exploitative working environments, and are not even recognised for rights under the labour laws. This makes the Bill rather elitist in its implementation; and downright discriminatory to working mothers in the unorganised sector. In 2000, in the

In 2000, in the Municipal Corporation Of Delhi vs Female Workers case, the Supreme Court identified that female construction workers, whose work was not regularised, were eligible to receive maternity benefits by virtue of gendered constitutional principles and human rights. The amended Bill completely ignores this judgment. The Law Commission of India, in 2015, recommended that the  Maternity Benefits Act, 1961 must cover even those working in the unorganised sector which includes domestic workers, agricultural labourers, seasonal and construction workers.

Secondly, the Bill leaves out surrogate mothers as statutory beneficiaries of the Bill. With the Surrogacy Bill also awaiting legislative process, it is a folly to leave out surrogate mothers, when the objective of the Bill is to provide for comfort and convenience to working mothers.

The Maternity Benefit Act of 1961 provided for benefits for the working mother, irrespective of how many children she chose to bear. In the amended Bill, however, the benefits decrease after the second child - 26 weeks of paid maternity leave only for the first two pregnancies; for the third child, 12 weeks paid leave is to be availed, and leaves reduce to six weeks from the fourth child.

The Bill in many ways is also trying to include an inherent incentive for informed family planning and population control, the onus of which lies completely on the mother. Because while the Bill is firm on increased benefits to the mother, it steers clear of paternity leaves. In fact, Maneka Gandhi has controversially suggested that paternity leaves would just be holidays for the men. By removing the onus of childcare from men, the government does the unspeakable - it turns back the clock on legal developments so far, and stereotypes women into honing traditional gender roles.

The Bill in many ways is also trying to include an inherent incentive for informed family planning and population control, the onus of which lies completely on the mother. Because while the Bill is firm on increased benefits to the mother, it steers clear of paternity leaves. In fact, Maneka Gandhi has controversially suggested that paternity leaves would just be holidays for the men. By removing the onus of childcare from men, the government does the unspeakable - it turns back the clock on legal developments so far, and stereotypes women into honing traditional gender roles.

Lastly, the Bill does not, in any way, cater to the progressive, ‘working’ women of today. The Bill has it’s centre only on sexual and reproductive health rights of the pregnant mother - and it leaves glaring gaps even in that framework - but what it entirely misses are obligations of the workplace or establishment to ensure that the pregnant woman feels comfortable in coming back to work after the maternity leave is completed.

The law does not have any provisions to establish mechanisms to professionally nurture the pregnant woman who is on maternity leave. The corporate sector and allied human resources mechanisms still harbour gender bias that is not completely removed by incorporating a long maternity leave with benefits. As the law is implemented, the perception of employers may add to this prejudice, and reduce the number of women in the workforce. The intent of the law is to protect the health and well-being of new mothers and babies only, thereby, marking motherhood as the centre of the woman’s life, but the concerns of the ambitious, professional woman remain unaddressed, unfortunately.

The author expresses sincere thanks to Shaonli Chakraborty for her ideas and support.


Published Date: Mar 13, 2017 01:55 pm | Updated Date: Mar 13, 2017 01:55 pm

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