By Radhika Jhaveri:
A couple of years ago, I had gone over to a friend’s in-laws’ place on account of her sister’s sister in law (I know it’s complicated) having given birth to her second son. It was a typical Gujarati family (I know since I am a Gujrati myself), with the men of the family out during the day and the women taking care of children and housework under the watchful eyes (read glare) of the mother in law. The new mother (lets call her Janki) had tired dark circles under her eyes and had spoken all but two words since I had entered the house. It occurred to me, after observing her for some time that she did not seem especially thrilled or happy at the arrival of her second son. After the initial customary oohing and ahhing at the baby, everyone fell back to doing whatever they were doing before me and my friend arrived.
My friend was an architecture student at the time and we would talk a lot about the kind of things she learnt in class. We gradually fell into a discussion about suspension bridges and how they are built. It was at that point that Janki joined in the conversation; she got hold of a pen and a paper and explained to me the physics behind building a suspension bridge. I could do nothing except stare at her with my mouth hanging open like an idiot. After we left, I inquired if Janki had some kind of an engineering background. To my surprise and immense chagrin, I discovered that Janki was in fact, a civil engineer and was forced to give up her career after the birth of her first son.
Janki’s case is by no means an exception. Instances of women having to give up their careers along with their financial independence in order to raise children are far too common. It is due to the fact that women are considered to be the primary caregivers giving fathers automatic exemption from the responsibilities of child rearing. The birthing process has little to no effect on fathers but it is a life-changing experience for a mother which means that the share of the reproductive burden weighs heavily and disproportionately on the shoulders of women alone.
And so I was pleasantly surprised when I read about the discussion that took place in Rajya Sabha the other day about increasing maternity leaves from 12 weeks to 26 weeks. I was especially impressed when Parliamentarians broached the topic of paternity leaves. However, I would like to bring attention to the fact that although the proposed amendment to the Maternity Benefits Act was introduced by the labour minister, it was primarily women parliamentarians who were interested in discussing this topic. It is disturbing how even today men do not think they need to concern themselves with what they consider are women specific issues.
I have over a period of time, argued in my social circles about the need for extended maternity as well as paternity leaves. Women generally tend to agree but arguing for paternity leaves among a group of men is frustrating, to put it mildly. Mostly I am ignored and my monologues are greeted with nothing except uncomfortable silences. But on the rare occasions when I do manage to get my male counterparts to respond, their thoughts on the subject send shivers of disapproval down my spine. One such conversation occurred when my husband and I had some friends over for an evening of Pictionary and barbeque. Comments ranged from, “Woh toh tum ladkiyon ka kaam hai,” (That is what women are supposed to do) “par tumko kyun job karna hai? Aapka pati kama ke la raha hai na! aap ghar pe aaram karo, bachon ka dhyan rakho, (But why do you want to work? Your husband works, right? Then stay back home and relax. Also, take care of the kids.)“ to “Kuch bhi haan, aadmi thodi na breastfeeding karega.” (Men won’t be able to breastfeed, right?) There it was – the thoughts of educated upper-class men.
All the above arguments have been used time and again to limit women to the home. The recent demonstration in Buenos Aires prompted by the removal of a breastfeeding woman by police officials from a public space is symptomatic of how society views women, particularly mothers. The belief that the place of a mother is at home with her child (which results in the identification of a woman with motherhood alone) is medieval, sexist and unfair. This patriarchal understanding of motherhood completely disregards a woman’s ambition, her sense of purpose and her individuality.
It is assumed that all women at some point in their lives become mothers and thus hiring women is not as cost effective as it is to hire men. This excuse is used to discriminate against women who are looking to be hired. A lot of discrimination is directed at women who become mothers and take maternity leaves. Once women are ready to rejoin the workforce after a year of their child’s birth, they often find that they are not hired at the same positions, paid significantly less than men or not hired at all. Is it then surprising that women who become mothers rarely return to the workforce? (Which is one of the factors that has led to a rise in the decline of female workforce participation rates in India). Reproduction is recognised as a social function by feminists three generations ago, a process that is completely natural but ends up being a thousand times more disadvantageous for women than it is for men.
What is entirely left out of the child rearing conversation is the role of fathers. Just because a woman gives birth and breastfeeds does not mean that the entire responsibility of raising the child is hers alone. Fathers share an equal responsibility. The argument that by going out and working, thereby providing for the family, is the way that fathers fulfil their responsibilities is not acceptable. Such division of labour among the sexes whereby the public life is split from the reproductive life hands women the short end of the stick. A woman should not be forced to leave her career in order to plan for a family. Inadequate maternity leaves, unavailability of crèches at the workplace and lack of paternity leaves in particular act as indirect pressures that corner her and leave no other option but to leave her job. Lack of paternity leaves allows men to remain in their jobs without prolonged absences, unlike their female counterparts. The fact that they play no role in child rearing means that there is no change in the number of hours they put in at work. Women, on the other hand, once they rejoin the workforce are forced to leave early. They are forced to a point where they have to choose between their jobs and their children. A choice that no one should have to make in the 21st century!
Paternity leaves allow a new mother some respite from the arduous and exhausting task of rearing a newborn and give the father an opportunity to bond with his child. It would limit to a certain extent the amount and kind of discrimination that working women have to face. Without paternity leaves, extending maternity leaves is meaningless.