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Friday / March 24.

The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill: An opportunity missed?

By Utkarsh Ruhela

The amendment to the Maternity Bill of 1961 was passed on March 9, 2017 in the Lok Sabha. The redrafted bill increases the paid leave from 12 weeks to 26 weeks amongst other benefits for prospective mothers working in the organised sector.
This bill puts India third in the list of countries with most maternity leave granted, below Canada and Norway at 50 weeks and 44 weeks, respectively.

Salient benefits of the bill

Female employees in the Central Government are already entitled to 24 weeks leave and additional child care leaves up to a period of two years. This bill will now include all the women employed in enterprises in the organised sector with more than ten employees.

The bill also asks companies with more than 50 employees to provide a crèche within a prescribed distance and the mother is allowed four daily visits to the crèche. One of the interesting aspects of the bill is that it grants only 12 weeks leave to the mother for her third child and subsequent children, which seems to serve both the population curbing sentiments and an employer’s concern for his losses.

The option to work from home, if the nature of the work permits her to, after a mutual agreement between the employer and the concerned individual is a welcome change in the amendment to the forty year old bill. Benefits to mothers undergoing surrogacy and provision for leaves for adopting mothers have been included in the bill as well, thereby trying to shed the taboo attached to them

Shortcomings that could further discrimination

The absence of a paternity leave in the bill led to many activist groups claiming that this bill might not solve some problems. Since the bill requires the employer to pay full wages during maternity leave, it could increase costs for employers and result in a preference for hiring male workers. The may work if the woman is a part of a team but other dissuading factors could come into play if she is holding an important leadership position.

Another aspect which the government could have dealt with is the plight of women working in the unorganised sector, which comprises more than 90% of working women. The pregnant women in the unorganised sector are currently entitled to Rs 6000 in financial aid for hospital admission charges along with the nutrition and vaccination expenses for their children, under the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana. Such schemes provide a lump sum payment but do not address the issues of loss of income or job security.

Right intentions, misplaced implementation?

India, being a patriarchal society, needs to unlearn the ideas of gender-specific roles and accept gender sensitisation. This bill is a missed opportunity to set things right by moving towards gender inequality and breaking the stereotypical roles of women in society. Nevertheless, this is certainly a good step towards women empowerment and can set a precedent for creating a work environment free from gender discrimination.