New Delhi: A bill that increases maternity leave for working women from 12 to 26 weeks was passed in the Rajya Sabha on Thursday, bringing with it the promise of increased women’s labour force participation in one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016, will also provide 12 weeks of maternity leave to “commissioning and adopting" mothers and will introduce an option of working from home for nursing mothers. A commissioning mother is one who gets a baby via a surrogate mother.

“Maternity leave is not a holiday, but a very stressful time for the woman. This was the bill that most women were eagerly looking forward to," said Maneka Gandhi, Union minister for women and child development, while discussing the bill in the Rajya Sabha. Bandaru Dattatreya, Union labour minister, who tabled the amendment, said the bill will “benefit more than 1.8 million workforce in the country".

Extended leave for maternity is good news for India’s poor and declining female workforce participation. Women in India represent only 24% of the paid labour force, as against the global average of 40%, according to a recent McKinsey Global Institute report. In the 15-59 years age group, women’s participation is only 32% in rural areas compared with 83% for men, and 21% in urban areas as against 81% for men.

Usually, economic growth in lower-middle-income countries leads to the creation of more jobs for women. But the latest National Sample Survey Office data shows that India’s female labour force participation rate fell nearly seven percentage points to 22.5% between 2004-05 and 2011-12.

With the passage of this bill, India will join the league of 42 countries where maternity leave exceeds 18 weeks. The International Labour Organization (ILO) recommends a minimum standard maternity leave of 14 weeks, though it encourages countries to increase it to at least 18 weeks.

In a country where child rearing is supposed to be the responsibility of the mother alone, marriage and not career is perceived to be the primary goal of a woman—no matter which profession she is in. For women who are working, striking a work-life balance becomes difficult because few employers provide flexible working hours or crèches. Requests for maternity benefits are often rejected outright.

Between 2008 and 2012, India’s labour courts received more than 900 complaints of denial of maternity benefits by employers. At the same time, most working women, when denied maternity benefits, simply stop working rather than going to court. A survey by industry body Assocham recently found that a quarter of Indian women give up their careers after having a baby.

Mothers should get at least one year of maternity leave. But if that is not possible, they should get at least eight months so that they can be there when the child is teething in the seventh month.- Jaya Bachchan, Samajwadi Party MP

The draft law makes it mandatory for establishments with 50 or more employees to have a crèche, acknowledging that “maternal care to the child during early childhood is crucial for growth and development of the child".

The bill, albeit late, was welcomed by activists who think it sets the right tone and identifies the need to allocate additional time to women for breastfeeding and child rearing.

“It was long due. It should have happened at a time when we were going through a massive information technology revolution (which attracted a large female workforce). It would have helped a lot of women then. Now jobs are declining, and the informal and gig economy is growing. It is good that this will set a tone for gender parity, but we also know that India has tonnes of laws but what we struggle with is implementation. Even with the bill passing, they will have to deal with problems like career comeback. Women will still be penalized for asking for their rights. It is a double-edged sword. This will benefit a small portion of women. The important reason that is hampering women in workforce is patriarchy," said Sairee Chahal, founder of Sheroes, a platform that helps women with their careers.

Welcoming the bill in the Rajya Sabha, the Communist Party of India’s D. Raja raised the concern that although the majority of Indian women work in the informal sector, the bill doesn’t cover them. “There are a lot of women who are working in the informal, unorganized sector. Government shouldn’t stop with this bill alone," said Raja.

The benefit of the bill should be expanded to other organizations, construction workers, call centre workers, as well.- Wansuk Syiem, Congress MP

Women in India are largely employed in the informal, semi-skilled or unskilled sectors, where incomes are low, and benefits and job security are limited. According to the ILO, in 2011-12, while 62.8% of women were employed in the agriculture sector, only 20% were employed in industry and 17% in the services sector.

This, despite the fact that education levels and school and college enrolment among girls are rising. The gross enrolment ratio (GER) of girls in elementary education has improved from 66% in 1991 to 97% in 2014; so too has the GER of girls in higher education—from 7.5% in 2002-03 to close to 20% in 2012-13. In fact, women account for 51% of all post-graduates in India today.

The economic argument is incontrovertible. With equality in the labour force, India’s gross domestic product in 2025 would be 60% higher even if women’s work status remained at current levels, with deeply entrenched ideas about gender roles, according to a report by McKinsey & Co.

Despite the biases, there are sectors such as financial services and aviation where women are doing well because of women-friendly policies. A few large private companies (Godrej, Accenture, Hindustan Unilever) and even the likes of Flipkart already offer long leaves to new mothers.

Maternity leave is not a holiday but a very stressful period for every mother. The reasons for the bill are that a woman’s body needs time to heal, and to make sure malnutrition is not caused by not breastfeeding; the child needs to be with the mother in the early months.- Maneka Gandhi, Union minister for women and child development

“Around the world, most strong economies provide generous maternity leaves. Companies invest in women and if they don’t return, that investment goes waste. Having a more generous maternity leave and flexible timing arrangement, will not only be an economic investment, it will also be a measure to ensure social justice," said Rebecca Reichmann Tavares, the UN Women representative in India, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka.

There are fears, including ones raised by the labour ministry, according to an Indian Express report in December 2015, that the mandatory six months of maternity leave may affect the employability of women and may deter employers from recruiting women.

“The patriarchal society is going to respond to any step towards gender equality in such a way, but that doesn’t mean no good step should be taken. Maternity is a right of a woman. This is a welcome move and in fact, there should be other institutional development along with this," said Ritu Dewan, head of Centre for Gender Economics, department of economics, University of Mumbai.

The bill will now have be voted on by the Lok Sabha, after which it must receive presidential assent.

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