Two steps forward, one step back?

Does India’s new maternity leave policy enhance gender equality?

Henrike Donner

Development, Social policy, Arts, culture & society | Asia, South Asia

10 April 2017

While India’s move to extend maternity leave to six months should be applauded, the legislation does little to challenge traditional gender roles, Henrike Donner writes.

When India’s lower house passed a bill in March 2017 extending the existing 12 weeks maternity leave for women employed in the organised sector to 26 weeks, the move was hailed as a landmark amendment. India first introduced such laws in 1961 as a way to encourage middle-class women to join the organised sector. The earlier provision stipulated that female employees in organised industries and government service had rights to 12 weeks of paid maternity leave in workplaces with more than 10 employees. This already comparatively generous provision has now been more than doubled. Supporting measures include the requirement that workplaces with more than 50 employees provide childcare, either in-house or nearby. Unlike maternity leave, such places are accessible to fathers and mothers alike, but all other additions, including extended sick leave during pregnancy, are aimed at female employees.

Much was made in India and abroad of the fact that this intervention catapulted the world’s seventh largest economy to number three in terms of length of paid leave. Importantly, commentators argued, only Canada and Norway were more generous.

Global audiences caught by surprise by the move were likely unaware of India’s progressive labour laws, the high level of unionisation in the country’s public sector and established industries, and importantly, the problems Indian private companies face in retaining educated women with children.

More important than the question ‘why India’ – a country which is after all described as a ‘developing’ nation – is the question of who benefits from these new laws, and whether they provide a path towards gender equality for the nation as a whole, as press coverage suggests?

Among the commentators lauding the bill as a step towards a more inclusive society was Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who tweeted about a “landmark moment in our efforts towards women-led development”. Furthermore, the corporate sector, which benefits greatly from high levels of education and relatively low wages for young female employees, embraced the bill as a way to encourage staff back into work after childbirth.

But critics quickly pointed out that the bill would apply to only a small percentage of female workers. The Financial Times, for example, argues that women’s participation in the Indian labour force is still very low at under 30 per cent. The vast majority of women are employed in the informal sector, working in small workshops, as domestic workers, as contract workers employed in outsourced and contractor-led industries, or in agriculture. This leaves only the 1.8 million women employed in the organised sector who can make claims under the new laws. They are employed directly by large national and multinational companies or are government servants.

While true, this criticism seems to miss the point. It is certainly important to point out the need to address the problems faced by the majority of women employed in India. Yet this does not devalue legislation that expands protection for those in the formal sector. After all, one would not argue that maternity leave provided in Norway is irrelevant because it does not protect Chinese sweatshop workers. The argument should be aimed at an embrace of such laws. In a globalised economy, gender issues need to be addressed across, rather than within, confined sectors of social and economic life.

A more fundamental critique, however, suggests that the devil is in the detail. Far from being a major intervention to enable women to join and work in the organised sector, the legislation addresses the problem of retaining them.

The legislation so emphatically embraced by the state and large companies is based on the developmentalist view that Indian women need to participate fully in economic life and that many educated women in full-time employment actively opt-out. An often overlooked fact, but crucial in this context, is the reluctance of middle-class mothers to return to work after childbirth. And one cannot blame them: as elsewhere, women’s lives are marred by the double burden of childcare and the pressures of employment, whether they are privileged or just get by.

Beyond India, there is a much broader debate to be had here about the value of bringing up children. As Judith Shulevitz has argued in the New York Times, even relatively privileged middle-class mothers face “family-unfriendly facts of life on the job [that] yank success further out of the reach of women who combine career and children… which is a common assumption about motherhood: It’s a lifestyle choice, not a wage-worthy job”.

Many mothers are realistic about their lack of career choices, the negative image attached to working mothers, and the daily grind involved in managing professional lives and family responsibilities.

India’s new law addresses some of these pressures through the introduction of crèches in larger companies. Those concerned about the costs for employers are less so than in other contexts, few mention the costs for employers as a negative. This is likely due to the fact that apart from the shrinking state sector, most young unmarried women work in the organised sector, especially in low-cost jobs, for example, service industries, call centres, and data processing. Whilst expanding, these sectors do not provide careers to most employees and are seen by women and wider society as temporary employment, taken up before motherhood, not in conjunction with having a family.

What the law does not do, is, therefore, challenge women’s roles as main carers at home. If anything, the move is a way of strengthening ideas about women’s duties towards the family enshrined in law. Crucially, it is only women who can take paid leave to look after infants, though some companies may have more lenient policies, and the gendered division of housework is not challenged. This is a crucial decision, given that many middle-class women as daughter’s in law are also tasked with taking on the main burden of everyday tasks at home.

This acceptance, and even embrace, of the existing domestic division of labour enshrined in maternal leave, distinguishes India’s outlook sharply from the much-cited cases of Norway or Canada. It suggests that while the new law may help women take some necessary steps forward, it may have come at the expense of taking one backwards.

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