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Dear Aunty Feminist, Is It Fair That Single Women Face The Brunt Of Maternity Leave?

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By Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan for Youth Ki Awaaz:

Greetings of the day, as the PR emails that still come into my inbox, put it. I’m in Bangalore, on a sort of vacation, but never too busy to talk feminism! Let’s get at it.

P asked:

Ever since I joined the company I work at, women keep leaving to have babies. I’m a single woman, and have no babies in my future just yet, and I don’t think it’s fair that I have to work hard and destroy stereotypes about “hiring women” just so that they can go off and have their kids. Is maternity leave fair? And how do I—a single woman—also claim my months off with pay, short of having a child?

Dear P,

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Back in the day, I used to work for a leading national newspaper. Now, I was on the features or “soft news” team, one that was comprised solely of women. Some were mothers. I was in my early twenties then, so I worked hard and partied harder. Some mornings I’d get into work with my previous night’s kajal still smeared around my eyes, looking like a panda. And because I could usually churn out a story faster than my colleagues, I also chafed at the bit at having to stay late when they seemed to be able to get out of there at the drop of a hat just by using their kid as an excuse.

“You don’t have responsibilities,” one of them once said to me sneeringly, and I felt so outraged at this, I even blogged about it, a bit of which I will quote here, to show you my twenty-something state of mind: “Another ex-colleague said something once about how we (the single girls) had no excuses for not getting more stories. After all, we had no responsibilities. And, sadly, though I looked daggers, though she took it back etc, I’m sure she still thinks that. Oh, look at her breezing in at noon, all perfumed and low waisted jeans and hungover and oh look at her leaving, all excited about some night out when I have to go home to kids and husband and responsibilities. […] As for not having responsibilities, I may not be dealing with family type shit, or parenting, but I do do stuff. I make sure, for instance, that the maid cooks in the morning. I make sure she doesn’t make anything the other two don’t like. I keep an eye on the groceries and see when we’re low on stocks. I check how much water we have in the fridge and always make sure our reserves are okay, when we run out of boiled water. And so on. […] We look out for each other, my flatmates and I, and we may not be married or have given birth to each other, but still, we’re, you know, family. And in a single person’s world, family is important.”

Anyway, all this to say, I totally get you. I’ve been the woman picking up the slack when other women took off to have babies and disappeared for what seemed like a thousand years. I’ve been the woman who casually side-eyed any professional woman who told me they were pregnant, and wanted to keep working after the baby, because yeah right, as if their workload would ever be the same as mine. Arguments I have also made are: a) if they can have three months off to have a baby, why can’t I have three months off to write a book or go sail around the world or something? b) It’s their own personal choice to have a child, and I don’t see why I have to support their biological clock.

Maternity leave came about so that people could have their children and then return to be part of the workforce instead of dropping out of it. It makes sense, if you think about it, less pressure financially on a family, and babies who benefit from having their mothers around for the first few months of their lives. The fact is that we need babies. Even now when population rates are soaring—we still need people to have babies—even if it is for their own selfish reasons, because the fact of the matter is, P, if you and I never have children, and eventually we’ll be old, it’s those kids who are going to be part of the economy that pays for our pensions. (Well, not my pension, because no one pensions a work-from-home author, but you get what I mean.) In China, thanks to their one-child policy, they have a population that is rapidly ageing and no new people coming to take their place. Germany and Japan both have abysmally low birth rates, which means the workforce is set to shrink by a good 12% in the coming years. Which means not such a great economy. So you see, they may be having their children as their own personal, selfish choice etc but it’s actually helping us in the long run.

Here’s something else: maternity leave in India is actually one of the top 16 longest paid leaves in the world. Isn’t that nice? That means that if you have a baby—and mind you, I’m not saying you have to — you’re entitled to a nice long chunk of time staying at home, getting to know this brand new human. This was a recent amendment to the Maternity Benefit Act of 1961, and means women can now take 26 weeks instead of 12, when they have a child. If your colleague, a smart, strong woman, can come back to work after her child, and be also happy with the amount of time she’s been able to spend with her child, that’s all the better for your company. You won’t have to invest in new people, and this highly skilled worker is not just going to slip through the cracks. (By the way, the law also allows you to take time off for a pregnancy termination or a miscarriage.)

However, things aren’t perfect. If we’re demanding equality for single women in the workplace, let’s take a moment to think about the fathers. Paternity leave rates are usually very low, with men pressured to go back to work as soon as they can. This is not great for families, and also for feelings in the workplace, where I imagine men grumble about having to pick up the slack while women have babies. We need gender neutral laws!

As for when you can take your soul-searching time off, I think there’s an argument to be made there also. Any company should encourage happy, fulfilled employees. There are sabbaticals you can take, but I don’t think most of them are paid. I encourage you to speak to your HR team about this, and also to your fellow colleagues, so you all feel equally valued. Also, another important tip before I close: practise saying, “That’s not my job.” So if your colleague gets time off for her kid’s emergency, it’s your company’s problem, not yours. You’ll feel a lot less resentful for it.

With love,
Aunty Feminist

Aunty Feminist loves to hear from her readers! If you’d like her to answer a burning question you might have, send it to us at auntyfeminist@youthkiawaaz.com or tweet your questions to @reddymadhavan.

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  1. Subhalakshmi

    I found this to be a very thought-provoking article. There is so much in here that I do not agree with. For instance, in the context of care and parenting, I strongly feel women do need to have time off and support through their maternity and care responsibilities. So do men. Women and men with young kids should also have the benefit of ‘care time’ (parental leave), and employers and colleagues need to be sensitive to that. So I am not against this ‘time off’ as the author seems to be.

    But I do agree with her on many counts. There is so much in this write-up that I identify with – the differential treatment of single women, for instance. I face that all the time, in life. As a single woman, who is also a parent, and an adoptive parent on top of that, I feel the discrimination even more acutely, when the ‘real mothers’ use their kids and husbands as an excuse from work and much else. I cannot (and in principle will not ever!) make such excuses.

    I agree with the author that fathers cannot be ignored in this equation and that men have an important responsibility in care, including child-care, and should be made to feel there is a supporting environment for them to care.

    I agree with the author that everyone has responsibilities to run a household, keep the house in order, and make sure there are meals on the table. Not just married people. All people. Men and women.

    Above all, I agree with the author that no one form of care should be privileged over another, and that no one kind of family should have benefits over another. Maternity, paternity, or PARENTITY as someone recently suggested 🙂 and child care is only one form of care. Caring for an elderly parent, a sick family member or friend, caring for yourself – these are all important too. All kinds of family configurations, domestic partnerships and co-habiting arrangements should be legitimate ‘families’ too.

    The writer of this article seems very resentful of what she perceives as ‘privilege’ for some. But I think it’s not all that black and white. Unfortunately, most of our HR policies, and the cutthroat corporate competitive culture that pervades all our workspaces, makes us see it all in black and white. The reality is that women in our society just don’t have it easy. It’s never only about their ‘choice’.

    Why aren’t we taught to demand our right to care and to be cared for? Why can’t we discuss these issues openly in our workplaces and our families? Why don’t we realise that the fight for equality and for a feminist world is not really about us versus them – men versus women, single versus not single, biological versus adoptive parent, employer versus employee – rather, it is about challenging existing social and cultural norms and transforming them to make a more equal and just society – and all of us, a more fulfilled lot! 🙂

  2. The Hulk

    Dear Aunty Feminist, why is it that when blacks were forced to leave seats for whites we called it racism and slavery, but when men are told to leave seats for women we call it politeness and respect?

  3. My Mother Rosa

    Dear Aunty Feminist,
    Please call yourself Aunty Libertarian, that would be more appropriate in the face of this grand misogyny that hides behind total lack of understanding of
    ‘privilege’ and ‘choice’.
    Thanks and regards,
    Someone who’s waiting for the death of choosey-choicey feminism

  4. Tanveer

    Though I agree that singles have a life and should not be pinpointed or made to work for others , I think the article is not a pleasant read. Would have been more appropriate if the focus was on giving equal opportunity to the people who are single to create a work life balance. Now I think the writer is simply focused to write against maternity leave or married people. Does she think we should not be having maternity leave ?? People who go on maternity leave or take their work lightly and focus more on home, in general tend to lose out on promotions / perks singles get because they put in more effort . It all comes with a price.

    I think in most major MNCs work life balance is for all , not just for married ones or mothers. The mind set that singles have no life definitely needs to change. But just pointing out maternity leave , just shows irritation in a particular context . Have been in corporate world for 10 years , single and I think its your job to make your manager realize , you have a life and you will not pick up work for someone else just because they are taking it easy , whatever the case maybe .

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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