Friday, 27 April 2018

Aligning Intention with Impact

                "This is my humble gift to women, a day after the world celebrated the International Women's Day," said Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya, while piloting the amendments into The Maternity Benefit (Benefit) Act, 2017. The Bill was an amendment to the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, which protects the employment of women and entitles her to full-paid absence from work to take care of her child. The law requires employers to provide women employees with maternity leave of up to 26 weeks in case of first two children, with full wages. However, a woman with two or more children will be entitled to 12 weeks of maternity leave. The act also introduced maternity leave up to 12 weeks for a woman who adopts a child below the age of three months, and for commissioning mothers. One of the provisions of the act requires every establishment with 50 or more employees to provide for crèche facilities within a prescribed distance and allows a woman to work from home, if the nature of work assigned permits her to do so. The establishment is required to inform a woman of all benefits that would be available under the Act, at the time of her appointment.

            The passage of this amendment in the parliament has been widely hailed by the citizens, as it placed India in the league of socially progressive, developed and women friendly nations. It placed India on the world ranking of number 3 in terms of highest leaves for the purpose. Although the intentions of the bill cannot be doubted and would definitely count in the list of progressive steps but a deeper analysis reveals, the gender biased mentality underneath. Is it really addressing the problems faced by women in India? Or exacerbating the pre-existing notions? What impact does it create on their employment prospects? And does it not further the groove of gender inequality? There are a few questions that remain to be questioned.

Unintended implications A recent Ipsos Global Trends Survey 2017 revealed that a vast majority of Indians (64%) are of the view that the role of women in society is to become good mothers and wives and they should focus mainly on home. Child rearing has been historically seen as the responsibility of a mother. A woman has to constantly struggle to choose between her social identity and career choices in a society entrenched in patriarchy. When the societal norms have fixed the role of a woman to the domestic sphere, such Acts tend to exacerbate such notion. In a world which is radically changing each day with the social, economic and political advances, we need to acknowledge the role of both the mother and the father in child’s emotional and social development. "Parenthood isn't just a women's issue, it's an economic issue and one that affects all parents — men and women alike," stated Duckworth, who became the first US senator to give birth while in office. Today, when husband and wife are both contributing to the financial account of their houses, why can’t we expect shared responsibility family affairs too?

In India, a lot of guilt is associated with the working mothers who leave their child back home, even if there’s an extended family to take care or if she can afford a child-care. This act not only deepens the notion of women as the child caretaker but also has deep impacts on labor force participation of women. In a world where the gender differences in workforce tend to decrease with time, India is experiencing a unique decrease in the female workforce participation from 35% in 1990 to 27% in 2017 (World Bank Study). There is a gamut of reasons for the same but one possible reason could be the discriminating policies of the government. Since the onus lies completely on the companies to provide the maternity costs to the woman (while in some countries the government shares it with the companies), the employers tend to under-recruit women to shy away from their responsibility. On April 23, 2015 a headline flashed on BBC where an employer terminated a woman’s employment one month after she informed about her pregnancy, stating that her performance was ‘unsatisfactory’. Such cases show that there exist different biases against hiring of women, far from the intentions that brought this act.

A report by the World Bank suggested that, more than a third of all job advertisements in India explicitly specify the preferred gender of the prospective employee, which more often than not is male. Six in every 10 such jobs prefer male candidates over females. This might not paint the picture of the labor market but it does demonstrate that there exists some bias against hiring women which might impact the labor force participation. Such an act would further damage the job prospects for women and distort their level playing field. Though such benefits seek to extend positive discrimination in favour of women, to allow them balance between their biological, social, financial roles, they deepen the gender bias and binary role fixations. The act refuses to acknowledge the participation of a father who also juggles between emotionally charged process, added responsibilities and his job demands.

No paternity benefits?
Maternity benefits stretch till some weeks after the delivery of the baby, where mother’s body returns to its pre-pregnant state. This is a crucial stage as the mother progresses through many changes, both emotionally and physically. The postpartum period also involves the parents learning how to care for their newborn and learning how to function as a changed family unit, which requires both the mother and the father to equally participate. Currently, paternity benefits allow fathers to take 15 days leave within six months since the birth of the child, which is too low to have an impact. But the bill maintains a loud silence on the paternity benefits or paternity leave. This leaves us with the question of father’s importance as a child’s caregiver. Today, India is home to world’s largest youth population. And this has led to an increase in the share of working parents in the workforce and thus a shift towards more nuclear families. In this set up, it becomes even more important to have a policy which helps the family to take care of the newborn. Either shared holidays for the new parents or separate holidays for the father would help share the responsibility between the two.

As one of the provisions stated that benefits of this Act would be extended to adoptive and surrogate mothers too. But it has completely undermined the existence of single fathers,
or widowers who have a child to take care of. These cases of parenthood, where single fathers have to take care of their babies and manage work simultaneously, have been blatantly missed while framing or amending the law.

Way Forward 
Without having its counterpart of a Paternity Bill, Maternity Benefits Act, 2017 might further catalyze the pre-defined notions about women. A paternity bill will help fathers to share the responsibility of the child by being emotionally and physically available for both, mother and the child. It would not only help fathers develop a emotional connection with the child but also promote health work culture, check employers who do away with their responsibility by recruiting less women and replacing them with men.

As much as the intentions for this bill are appreciated, it’s important to observe the impacts that it creates and check whether they align with the predefined ones. The bill serves, quite rightly, as an example of a step ahead on the existing social norms however, sometimes there is a need to revisit those very pre-established norms. If we fail to do so, it becomes on the contrary, defeating its own purpose, a tool of discrimination. The constructive aim of creating a gender-balance workforce seems to be blurred on ground and the male breadwinner model continues to dominate even today.

- By  

Pursuing Masters in Economics from Delhi School of Economics. 

A public policy enthusiast.

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