The new maternity bill that proposes six months’ maternity leave for all working women was passed in the Rajya Sabha in August last year. While activists call it a progressive move for women, absence of any mention about the paternity leave in the bill is raising many eyebrows.
Activists feel that by discounting the role of men, the proposed bill seems to view childcare as an issue that concerns only the mother and not the father.
Akash Premsen, 35, an automobile professional from Delhi who works in the corporate sector became a father last year. He found out that his company only allowed a two-day paternity leave.
“My boss looked at me straight in the eye and said that ‘your paternity leave is for two days’. So I took that two-day leave days and then I immediately took three weeks of my annual leave of that year,” he said.
“People said that I am in love with changing diapers, a lot of jokes were made about me but I rolled with punches because I don’t think that their remarks make me less of a person.”
Mr Premsen’s wife Himani, 32, feels her husband’s paternity leave complimented her maternity leave.
“When our daughter was born, my husband was involved from the day one. Right from bathing the baby , changing the diapers , putting her to bed and taking care of me while I was breastfeeding, he has been a hands-on father. So there is no reason to think that parenting is only a woman’s job”, she said.
At present, men like Mr Premsen, who want to support their wives during and after their delivery, are not entitled to a paternity leave by law and this issue remains unaddressed in the new bill as well. The only exception in this case is the central government employees who are entitled to a 15-day paternity leave.
Women Activists Demand Gender Neutral Parental Leave
Amrita Nandy, a social scientist and writer, feels the new bill puts an unfair burden of child care on the mothers. “One of the biggest misconceptions we have as a society is – because women give birth, they are better caregivers and nurturers. We should try to move towards times where there will be family leave and not paternity or maternity leave.”
She further said, “As a woman, I have the option and choice to be out and working. If you don’t provide me a choice, then I will have to be home. On the other hand, if you only give me the choice of a maternity leave and not my partner, you are making sure that only I stay at home.”
According to the government, however, India is not ready for a paternity leave and fathers are not yet ready to take up this responsibility.
Maneka Gandhi, Minister for Women and Child Development said, “Men may help change a few diapers. Hopefully, they’ll stay up awake at night, but during the day, I doubt it. This will put the woman in a position where she is looking after the baby and then she is looking after the husband during the day. What I am saying is, give me statistics in a couple of years which say that men took sick leave, annual leave and used it as paternity leave. Then I am happy to change it.”
However, activists believe that policies can help change mindsets and are hoping the government will review its decision.
Ms Nandy said, “It is right to say that men haven’t taken up this role, but does that justify why we should not have a provision for it? The duty of the state is to provide a provision.”