A few days ago, the Facebook page of the Ministry of Women & Child Development, posted this particular news article. While at the face of it, it seems like a jubilant reiteration of the plan that Maneka Gandhi proposed – to extend paid maternity leave from three months to eight months – the explanation provided by the Minister for Women & Child Development seems quite sexist in itself.

To quote from the article,

Eight months of maternity leave is a necessity because in one month, the woman goes into the stage where she has to prepare for the baby’s needs which include taking care of his/ her clothes, food, and other essentials.

But, Ms. Gandhi, no where did you mention that child rearing is not just a woman’s responsibility. The one month where the future mother is meant to prepare for the child’s arrival by buying clothes, stocking food and the likes is equally the father’s responsibility too. The first 6 months of the child which is a significantly large adjustment period for parents has an unfair amount of burden placed on the mother since the father is mostly unavailable to help out.

In India there is no legislation that insists that companies provide paternity leave. While Central Government employees are offered 15 days paid paternity leave, individual companies are under no obligation to do so. This basically means that most companies offer just 3 days off as paternity leave. So, in a culture that already expects mothers to be multi-tasking Goddesses, the ministry is offering no respite by reiterating the same belief.

Sweden, the most feminist country in the world, was in the forefront of offering equal parental leave. Currently, fathers get two months paid parental leave, and starting 2016, this will extend to three months paid leave. Also, this leave is not interchangeable – meaning women cannot take additional time off, while men continue to go to work. So, fathers actually get time to be one of the primary caretakers and bond with their children.

Maneka Gandhi also said,

The ideal minimum duration for breastfeeding a baby is seven months. All the best doctors and gynaecologists have suggested that seven months are required for breastfeeding a child. Only after this period can one go ahead and give the child home-cooked food. The sums up the importance of the eight month period.

But, why reduce the necessity of maternity leave to address only the needs of the newborn? The purpose of maternity leave was not just to ensure wellbeing (& nursing) of the child, but it was also to help women recuperate from the difficult and arduous exercise of childbirth – natural childbirth is hard enough, and when women have to go through C-section, which is categorized as a major surgery, the body goes through a lot more stress.

The International Labour Organization states that the goal of maternity protection legislation is to enable women to combine their reproductive and productive roles successfully and to promote equal opportunities and treatment in employment and occupation, without prejudice to health or economic security. This is why The Maternity Benefit Act of India strictly affirms that birth of a child includes a still-born child and a woman is entitled to paid six weeks of leave even in the event of a miscarriage.

There are other double standards in the proposal that come to the forefront, when you realize that according to Indian laws, contractual employees are actually not eligible for any maternity benefits.

For instance, a resident of Belapur was refused maternity leave and instead her contract was terminated by the Water Supply & Sanitation Department when she asked for time off during her pregnancy.

While we appreciate the attention paid to maternity benefits & childbirth, we might consider the proposal with a larger sense of approval, if it was not used to once again draw focus on mothers and their importance in a child’s life, and to conveniently forget the other parent in the mix.

Featured Image Credit: A file photo of Maneka Gandhi | www.huffingtonpost.in

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