In 2017, the Parliament of India passed The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act (MB Act hereafter) which increased the paid leave for expecting mothers from 12 weeks to 26 weeks. The seemingly progressive move, on closer scrutiny, reveals an undercurrent of acceptance for the ‘gendered division of labour’ in society and appears to reinforce the same. Moreover, the MB Act makes employers liable to bear the cost of the said benefits, thereby making female employees more “expensive” to employ when compared to their male counterparts. According to estimates, this move will result in pushing about 12 million women out of the workforce (Nikore 2018).  Since 2016, India has witnessed a continuous fall in its ranking in the Global Gender Gap Index, released by the World Economic Forum. The reason for the same was attributed to low inclusivity and ‘low economic participation’ of women in the Indian Economy.
Moreover, this Act is critical in normalising the notion of women’s solitary role in childbearing and childrearing. This Act was followed by the tabling of the Paternity Benefit Bill 2017 which aimed to bring a new legislation for paternity leave. It proposed a 15-day paid leave benefit to the male employees in both organised and unorganised sectors. While the MB Act provides for a 6 months maternity leave period, the proposal for a 15-day paternity leave appears to be a mere pittance in driving a widespread social change for shared responsibilities and ‘shared-parenting’. There is a need to probe the MB Act in its current form to bridge the missing links in women’s inclusivity in the labour force and to uphold women’s dignity. This article attempts to bring out the pitfalls of the proposed legislation and examines the scope of Gender-Neutral Parental Leaves to achieve greater gender equality.
Reinforcement of Gender Bias
“…the difference with housework lies in the fact that not only has it been imposed on women, but it has been transformed into a natural attribute of our female physique and personality, an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depth of our female characterSilvia Federici (Revolution at Point Zero)
The above quote by Silvia Federici lies at the heart of the concerns with the MB Act, as the Act reinforces the extant gender-based division of labour and gender bias. While the Act attempts to address the concerns of working women by increasing their paid maternity leaves and providing certain benefits, like provision of creche facilities etc., it is ridden with complex issues. Prima facie, the act seems to address the concerns of working women, but it is systemically impeding women to participate in the labour force. There exist two key concerns here, first, the cost of these ‘benefits’ (for both expecting mothers and fathers) is to be borne by the employer; second, it implicitly stereotypes women’s role in the private sphere.
Since the implementation of the Act, figures of female participation in the labour force have slumped significantly (Chakraborty 2019). While this Act comes as a relief for working-women, in the absence of a fitting corollary in the form of a Paternity Leave and Benefits Act, it fails to make parenting a ‘shared activity’. Since Paternity leaves in India, and around the world are discretionary for organisations, and without any legal obligation, statistics reveal low levels of claimants for the same.
Amongst BRICS economies, India is the only one without any stipulated paternity or gender-neutral parental leave, which may be availed by either parent. Further, the cost of maternity benefits in other BRICS economies is borne by the government and not solely by the employer, making the scheme less expensive for employers while ensuring female participation in the labour force. In India however, many employers have privately raised concerns regarding the stringent law and how it has made it expensive to hire women employees (Johari 2014). In other countries, social security programs and tax rebates for organisations are used as tools to incentivise and fund parental benefits.
The limitations circumscribing women from their childhood days makes them believe and conform to the idea of ‘caregiving’ as their ‘natural’ attribute (Federici 2012). This idea is believed to have worked in favour of classical liberalism and the modern theory of state for many years, as women were merely seen as social and biological reproducers. This was done systematically, without giving women any agency (economic or political), to inhibit the process of contemplation of their existence beyond domestic life (Federici 2012).
A study conducted by Promundo (a US-based organisation) on ‘gendered-work’, revealed that 80% of men in countries like India, Egypt, Pakistan etc. consider child-rearing activities as “a women’s job”. This belief comes from the great divide between the private and public sphere and is a manifestation of power dynamics between the genders across this perceived partition. In consonance with this ‘convention’, even today, Indian women in the urban setup, contribute more to housework and other care-work than men. As per a report published by International Labour Organisation, titled ‘Care work and care jobs for the future of decent work’, in urban India, a woman engages in domestic work for 312 minutes each day as compared to a man, who dedicates only 29 minutes per day.
Women in India spend 312 minutes per day in urban areas and 291 minutes per day in rural areas on unpaid care work. Men correspondingly spend only 29 minutes in urban and 32 minutes in rural areas on unpaid care work. This disproportionate burden of unpaid care work by women means that they lose out on opportunities to participate in paid labour or are forced to undertake paid labour leading to their time poverty and loss in well-being. India’s value of unpaid care work as a percentage of GDP is 3.5% (PPP 2011) where women contribute 3.1% of it.
Gender-neutral Parenting as a solution
The conception of ‘caregivers’ is universally associated with women, and often such work is stigmatised to such an extent that it discriminates against men if they take up such roles. This is the primary impediment for male partners to empathise and volunteer for caregiving and household work. This is reflective in the global statistics such as Gender Equality Index 2019 published by the European Institute for Gender Equality, which show that male partners avail little to no parental leaves. According to the report titled ‘Work-Life Balance’, parental leaves claimed by men in Croatia stood at 4.5%, in France at 4.4% and in Denmark at 11.7%. Such discouraging figures from countries with institutional paid paternal leaves are indicative of a deep-rooted problem of gender bias, which results in women being burdened with domestic as well as professional work.
The notion of gender-neutral parenting stems from the second wave of feminism, more prominently from liberal feminism, to disrupt the oppressive status quo (Martin, 2005). Today, women have found emancipation through their work outside their domestic life. While women have evolved, society’s perception and the ‘public discourse’ around caregiving seems to have stagnated. This is why despite the availability of parental leave, only a small section of men willingly avails it.
If society restructures its perception towards domestic work and encourages fathers to take parental leaves to engage with their children and help with other housework, the outcomes may positively impact women’s labour-force participation and reduce gender pay gaps. A study of different approaches to paid parental leaves in OECD countries, conducted by the World Policy Analysis Centre suggests that paid parental leave up to 6 months leads to an increase in women’s labour force participation and brings down wage inequalities. A paid parental leave for both men and women is critical in ensuring equal economic opportunities. (Gender Equality Index 2019).
To bring about real changes, it is imperative to devise “commoning” practices such as innovative and collective forms of reproduction and to challenge the rigid societal framework of roles delineated along the lines of gender, age, class, geographies etcetera (Federici 2012). This may be driven by institutional changes or by another revolutionary wave to restructure the private realm. Hence, state and society must confront these obsolete social norms and attitudes that perceive women as primary caregivers, which often reflects in policies such as maternity rather than gender-neutral parental leave. Gender-neutral parenting is an important milestone on the road leading to social and political transformation (Martin 2005).
Saumya has a background in Architecture and is currently pursuing Master’s in Public Policy from National Law School, Bengaluru. Her key interests are in sustainable development, urban planning and policy. You can reach her at email@example.com
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