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Maternity leave

Maternity leave

Women in India will now be allowed maternity leave of 26 weeks, as per new amendments to the Maternity Benefit Act of 1961. On Thursday, the Lok Sabha passed the Maternity Benefit Amendment Bill, 2016, which extends the duration by more than twice the previous figure of just 12 weeks. The increase in maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks only applies for the first two children. After that, it will stay at 12 weeks. For those adopting a child, maternity leave for 12 weeks will be made available if the infant is below the age of three months. Beyond an extension to maternity leave, workplaces with more than 50 employees must make arrangements for a creche facility for working mothers. It has also made a provision under which an employer can permit a woman to work from home.

It is a welcome development. Nonetheless, there are some core issues that require redressal. First, these benefits only apply to those women working in the organised sector. Women working under exploitative conditions in the unorganised sector, where labour laws aren't even recognised, continue to be left out. A majority of the nearly 30 million Indian women who get pregnant every year will seemingly not benefit from the new law. The bill also apparently does not recognise that men should be made equal players at home and in caregiving. This division of labour—mother as the primary caregiver and father as the provider—is steeped in patriarchy.

The bill seems to perpetuate this notion. Its silence on paternity leave is unfortunate. Swagata Raha, a legal researcher, writes in a recent column for The Hindu: "Restricting the option of working from home to only women also reinforces gender-based roles within the family. Provisions like these will inevitably cause employers to view these measures as an undue burden. It will also render the 'equal pay for equal work' guarantee illusory as the "nature of work" assigned to working mothers can always be rationalised as not being the same as their male counterparts. While it may marginally improve the working conditions in the short term, the amendment will undoubtedly perpetuate and sustain the gender gap in employment and pay scales."

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