Maternity Benefit Bill and the Question of Paternity Leave

The pressures and compulsions of modernity have pushed the woman today into a lot of moulds that tend to derogate from her role of motherhood. On Mother’s Day today we re-visit the introduction of the maternity benefit bill, which was a long-due acknowledgement of this vital role of women and their needs to fulfil that function in emotionally and physically healthy conditions.

An observation of the Hon’ble Minister of Women and Child Development, Ms. Maneka Gandhi, during the introduction of the bill in a conference saw a wave of hate unleashed against her on social media! Though several of the angry reactions emanated from genuinely concerned members of society as well, those who saw the statement as undermining and limiting the male’s parental role and a step back in ‘gender-equality’. But most noisy visceral reactions against the Minister were from men’s rights activists and the misogynist society at large crying that this was unmistakable sign of the ‘male-hate’ that they allege. These reactions are more indicative of hostility against females embedded in our society than a point of dissent to the statement considered in its true light. I sometimes get the impression from this barely disguised, irrational virulence, that these very people would be glad to have (in fact, secretly envy Islamic model of control) the Saudi style women’s council that has only men deciding upon the welfare and rights of women, because mistrust of women is so deep-seated in such mindsets. What is frightening is, that a huge chunk of the holders of such opinions actually profess to stand under the pro-Hindu banner, the common strain being, ‘since left-liberalism stands for feminism, Hinduism must constitute the counterposition that stands for men’s rights’ (which is in effect an equation with the white Christian men’s rights movement, and is really far from being Hindu!)

This conception is aberrational in several respects: Restoring females to their rightful place in society, protecting their equal rights and opportunities, where their unique talents, capabilities, contributions are respected can in no way be at odds with what has traditionally been accorded by ancient Indian (by implication Hindu) society. It was in this setup that even the rhythms of a woman’s body were honoured and in fact these very aspects of feminity (childbirth, menstruation, puberty, etc.) were deified through tradition. It is modern societal setup and its relentless pressures which act in complete disregard. The error is also in conflating genuine measures of upliftment and welfare of women in India with the rights and demands touted by West-borne feminism. Moreover, such reactions predicate upon the ideal of gender-equality, which in the context of present stand of things in society is inapplicable, apart from also being a disregard of natural, ineluctable differences between men and women.

To put into perspective what the Minister actually said:

Paternity leave can be considered only if once the woman goes back to work after her 26 weeks of leave, we find that men are availing their sick leave for a month to take care of the child. Let me see how many men do that. I will be happy to give it but for a man; it will be just a holiday, he won’t do anything.”

“If men gave me one iota of hope by taking sick leave for childcare, then yes, we can think of mooting a proposal for paternity leave.

These statements were made in the course of clarifications made on the newly proposed Maternity Benefit Bill.

Now to ask a frank question: Considering the reality of our society, how off-mark was the Minister’s utterance really? If we leave aside the tiny fraction of urban males who pride themselves on their metrosexual values, the very basis for extension of paternity leave does not exist! Does this imply that Indian men do not care about family and/or are not sufficiently attached to their children? Of course not! But must this be expressed in the same manner mothers do? How many of us remember our Dads for changing our nappies? (Mine did!) What we do remember them for is the pillar of strength they were and the primary source of mental, emotional and physical security in offsprings. This is by no means devaluing the involvement of fathers in tending their babies (many of them do and do so admirably!), but more than reinforcing an emotional commitment, the gesture is not of vital importance to the survival, health and care of the child, and this that clearly -from the elaborations of the Minister- formed the basis of the proposals, not parental emotion!

Is a male naturally equipped to physically care for a baby the way a woman is? Do they experience the extreme discomfort, mental trauma of enforced physical separation from an 8-week old infant due to demands of profession, wearing pads to prevent milk from oozing from breasts that swell every two hours, expressing out and discarding this vital nutrient meant for suckling your infant? The shift of primary focus on the baby is more natural in a woman rather than engendered through a role imposed by society. (This is clearly observable, documented and acknowledged by companies.) Where is there then a question of equating the maternal and paternal roles towards a baby? Do males also acquire heightened alertness similar to the mother that awakens her at the slightest stirring of the baby? Typically fathers snore through the night oblivious, not because they’re unconcerned, but because they’ve not given birth and do not experience the post-natal physical changes that a mother’s body undergoes, provided by nature for survival of the baby. Also, the mother’s body post-delivery is vulnerable and prone to infections, not fit to undertake the stress and demands of professional life, and rest essential even from the perspective of her own long-term health and mental well-being. (If the ones in more competitive fields wish to forego leave, or manage it to their convenience, there is scope for flexibility even in this.) None of these concrete factors however exist for new fathers to form reasonable grounds for claiming extended paternity leave.

The tradition of the new mother moving with baby to the care of in-laws or own parents is precisely recognising these post-natal needs. This is an unquestioned practice in a vast majority of Indian families. The Minister is spot on when she says that fathers need to demonstrate equality in the nurturing role by taking sick (or any other) leave for caring for the baby, which almost never is the case. This again must not be seen as apathy towards their newborn child, but a matter-of-fact recognition that mother is more than capable of taking care of the baby and the father’s role is more supportive than an imperative, and much more worthwhile that he looks to profession to safeguard the other aspect of nurturing, ‘providing’, and saves his leave instead for exigencies or to chip-in in the post maternity leave phase. This is not to enforce gender roles but only the most sensible, optimal arrangement given the circumstances! Else we’d have had many fathers applying for leave for baby-care, which clearly is not the factual situation. It’s more like, ‘if they get free leave, then they might tend the baby’, which is ideal, not an essential requirement.

Extended paternity leave in this scenario is more an indulgence rather than an imperative for ensuring health of the present and future population, which is the perspective from which a legislating entity has to address it. It is an undesirable, avoidable loss of productivity. Moreover, this is again a case of foisting upon an age-old evolved pattern, an idealist modernist meme which seeks to forcibly equalise the genders to androgynous behaviour than supporting them in their natural talents and capacities. It makes much more sense in introducing extension and enhancement of maternity benefits (and along these lines that the new bill appears to have been designed), introduction of crèches in companies (this can be made an imperative and benefits extended to both fathers and mothers giving them the opportunity to fulfill parental responsibility equally) to ensure professional childcare, safety and close supervision by either parent. If men are so keen to prove their parental credentials, they can do so after the 6-month post natal period. It would also be a terrific employment opportunity for women from poorer sections for training and growth, and gainful employment for senior unemployed ladies/housewives since they could find employment as caregivers in the crèches.

The professional prospects (comparative to males) and employability of women for suspension of work for longer period naturally is a concern, but this belongs to the realm of payoffs and choices that individuals make. The government can at best assure benefits and equal consideration in public services, but cannot impose these on the competitive, private sphere. These do and would depend ultimately on the willingness of hiring companies and the benefits they are willing to offer proportionate to their reputation and stature.

I point to an article which again attempts to impose along conventional lines the fallacious idea of ‘equality’ of genders, bids at social engineering which push unrealisable modernist ideals of equality. On the aspect of the career prospects of individual women, a 6-month break affects only the company, not a woman’s career. Anyone could take a break for any number of reasons. That for post-natal leave is purely maternal and child’s health! If companies do not provide this essential due benefit or exercise prejudice on that account they can/must be forced to comply. But to my thinking, by no means may this vital function of creating progeny be considered of secondary importance to a culture and nation. I consider it disruptive of society and counter to evolutionary wisdom. It is a contribution to the GDP irrespective of work done in the 6-month salaried leave period, and usually extends beyond that as a lifetime commitment. Diminishing the importance of motherhood is not a recognition of a woman’s importance at all!

Why would one want to “move away from gender defined roles”? I quote a passage from this article that takes a beautiful delve into why achieving such equality between the genders is not only not possible, it is undesirable, because it is actually be demeaning of feminity and ultimate derecognition of the true worth of women and their contributions.

“Instead of recognizing their massive work at home, women are more and more encouraged to be active in office work – and to demand equal pay for equal work. Their worth is proved only if they perform the acts of men, whether it is in combatant role in the army or in car racing. They are thus continuously made to feel inferior by these tricks. A huge mass of female icons have been raised by business and corporate men to compete with men and prove their worth. Women, unfortunately, have fallen into this new trap to ‘prove’ themselves.

The corporate business world has also made society into sex-centric from family-centric since the latter societies respect women in the household as mother, grandmother, mother in law etc. But modern business do not want a society which respect women but a society where women are craving for rights bits of which are thrown as crumbs by men.”

If anything it is this that is the most reductive stereotype, that women be like, function exactly like men to be counted as productive, their contribution measured exactly in the same terms that men’s contributions are.

Author: Smita Mukerji

Published: May 13, 2018

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