India’s New Maternity Bill: Necessary, But Not Sufficient

This bill is a small victory for soon-to-be mothers in India (Source: Flickr, Creative Commons)

Recently, the Indian Government’s Lok Sabha passed an amendment to the Maternity Benefits Act of 1961, raising the required amount of paid maternity leave to 26 weeks. However, there is a catch: the bill mainly applies to women working in the formal sector, as it is only enforceable in establishments with 10 or more employees. This leaves out millions of women who work in India’s informal sector. Nonetheless, this is a long overdue step in the right direction to help women in the formal sector, who hitherto were not receiving sufficient parental leave, and sometimes dropping out of the workforce as a result.

The amendment is a necessity in and of itself, but not sufficient to properly benefit working women even in the formal sector. Working mothers need a support system, flexibility in their job and the opportunity for growth in their career once returning from maternity leave. After surveying multiple corporate employees across industries, it was revealed that many people believe that simply offering 26 weeks is not enough. Every person surveyed agreed with the 26-week maternity leave, while some claimed more was necessary.

Most working mothers would require a reliable daycare in the absence of family/friends to take care of their children while they are at work. One respondent in the survey commented, “26 weeks is not enough, what are you doing with a 6 ½-month-old baby?”. The bill does require companies with 50 or more employees to provide a creche, but this may lead to negative effects. It is an expense for companies to provide daycares, hence, it should not become a deterrent to hiring women. Therefore, additional government intervention in terms of financially supporting and incentivising establishments in providing daycares is a necessity.

The regimen that comes with a full-time job is difficult to fulfil right after maternity. To make the process easier for new mothers, companies must offer flexibility. This consists of giving women the opportunity to work from home and adjust their timings to best suit their needs. This would help manage their productivity as per their convenience. Establishments should also think about offering ‘return to work’ programs to help women who took an extended break during their pregnancy re-enter the workforce.

Children also need to be supported by their fathers during the first initial weeks of life. Studies show that children whose fathers took paternity leave performed better in a secondary school setting. Out of the multiple people surveyed, most people supported companies offering paternity leave, while 3 in 5 supported offering paternity leave of 4 weeks or more. New fathers can also benefit from flexibility in terms of work hours and work from home policies; this helps working parents share the duty of childcare while continuing to work. A father taking paternity leave also has a positive effect on the mother’s career. When the job of raising a child is solely on the mother, her career can be negatively affected. When the burden is shared, both parents can continue their careers without fear of losing momentum. Therefore, it would be prudent of the government to implement some sort of paternity leave plan of at least three working weeks (15 days), something which is already offered to government workers in India.

To conclude, while offering 26 weeks to women is a leap in the right direction, but it is nowhere near the end goal. Governments must strive to support women through their pregnancy and parents through childcare, as they are raising the next generation of Indians. The act can be further amended by improving the policies for women in the formal sector, as well as working to benefit women working in the unorganised or informal sector.