As per the Central government’s decision, most provisions of the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act came into force on 1 April 2017. With this, the duration of paid maternity leave increases from 12 weeks to 26. The development is being lauded as a historic change and a reason for women to celebrate. But is that really the case?
While the amendment rightly recognizes some contemporary social developments and introduces provisions around surrogacy and adoption leave, it fails to address childcare leave for fathers, thus reinforcing the belief that child-rearing is solely a woman’s responsibility. During one interview, Maneka Gandhi, the Union minister of women and child development, said that India was not ready to embrace leave for fathers and that most men would treat it as a holiday. Gandhi later clarified her comments, stating that the amendment is a first step towards ensuring effective childcare for a newborn and that paternity leave can be introduced in the future. This begs the question as to when India would be ready to accept a man’s role in child-rearing. And more importantly, isn’t now as good a time as any to implement such a change?
Parental leave: A step towards gender equality
Parental leave is an evolving concept where child-rearing is seen as a shared responsibility. This ties in with the growing awareness of gender equality. The intent here is to ensure that women and men enjoy the same opportunities, rights and obligations in all areas of life. Inarguably, women need a certain period of leave for medical reasons, but thereafter child-rearing responsibilities and leave could be shared.
One of the compelling reasons for introducing parental leave is linked directly to a major criticism of longer maternity leave: that it can have a negative impact on hiring practices. With the increase in maternity leave to almost six months (paid by the employer), there is bound to be an increase in questions around the woman’s marital status and her plans to start a family. Many companies will prefer to hire a male candidate instead. But if we have a system where men are equally likely to take childcare leave, we place men and women on an equal pedestal and eliminate this bias.
How are some other countries dealing with childcare leave?
Some countries have successfully implemented models extending childcare leave for both parents. Sweden, for instance, currently offers almost 70 weeks of parental leave. Of this, each parent gets a non-transferable share (of approximately 12 weeks each) and the rest can be shared between them as per their convenience. The UK has a similar policy, under which women get the option of utilizing a part of their maternity leave as shared parental leave.
Systems such as these, which allow partners to share leave at their convenience, have been recognized as being the most effective. The International Labour Organisation (ILO), as well as the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), have supported such policies as providing the right amount of incentive and flexibility for parents. They encourage men to take leave, helping break gender norms about the role of men and women in child-rearing. They also help spread the career break between the parents, thereby ensuring that the career aspirations of neither parent are compromised.
Challenges in India and possible workarounds
Undeniably, implementing a system of childcare leave does present some challenges. The first is ensuring that the model is economically feasible. In countries with expansive childcare benefits, the government often shoulders the financial responsibility. Would a completely government-funded initiative be feasible in India at present? The answer is likely to be in the negative. However, there is scope to create a model along the lines of the provident fund or the employees’ state insurance fund where the employer can make contributions on behalf of every employee, man or woman, and the funds so collected can be used to pay the employees availing childcare leave.
The second challenge would be addressing the deep-rooted prejudices that are still prevalent in society. There is an element of truth in Gandhi’s comments in so far as they reflect the gender stereotypes that still exist in India. But should the law remain a passive spectator until the mindset of the general populace undergoes a change? This would be discounting the enormous potential that a well-drafted piece of legislation can have in contributing towards a positive change in society. The law must function as a platform which helps break the vicious cycle of prejudice.
It is true that a system of childcare leave that is gender neutral might still see more women availing of its benefits initially. However, legitimizing the concept of paternity leave and making it more acceptable for men to step forward and be equal partners in child-rearing will encourage more men to avail the leave that they are entitled to. The role that the law plays here would be that of creating the right atmosphere for bringing about a positive change in the cultural mindset of society.
Swarnima is an employment law counsel at Trilegal, a law firm.