I am a father and have experienced the challenges faced in devoting sufficient time towards childcare. Being a member of the Block Panchayat during our son’s birth, and a member of the Legislative Assembly when we were blessed with a daughter, I was amidst the people soon after the birth of my children. It was my wife, Dr. Pradnya, and our families who took on the onus of taking care of our infants. It struck me then how fathers in India aren’t expected to lend an equal hand when it comes to infant care and this fact always lingered with me.
Two years ago, in August 2016, the Maternity Benefit Bill was passed in the Upper House during the monsoon session. I have been putting several amendments to various legislations that come up for discussion in the House. So, when the Maternity Benefit Bill came up for discussion in Lok Sabha in March 2017, I proposed an amendment to introduce the concept of ‘paternity’ benefit in the Bill and to change its name accordingly. Surprisingly, I was not allowed to even introduce the concept. This, however, turned out to be a blessing in disguise as this gave me the idea of introducing a full-fledged and comprehensive bill on Paternity Benefits.
During discussions on the Maternity Benefit Bill, MPs across party lines had said there were lacunae in the bill and raised the issue of how, unless a similar legislation is introduced for paternity leave, it will work against the interest of women. Due to a churn in our social fabric and a spurt in the number of nuclear families, lawmakers and organizations need to take cognizance of this reality and tailor laws and policies accordingly.
As per a 2014 report by International Labour Organization, “Fathers who take leave, especially those taking two weeks or more immediately after childbirth, are more likely to be involved with their young children. This can have positive effects for gender equality in the home and at work and may indicate shifts in relationships and perceptions of parenting roles and prevailing stereotypes.”
The holistic development of a newborn should be the joint responsibility of both the mother and the father. Their involvement and time is sine qua non (essential condition) for the proper well-being of the newborn. The absence of paternity leave is reflective of a stereotype that child care is the sole responsibility of the mother. An effective policy outlining paternity leave will be instrumental in bringing about a change in attitude and bridge gender divide in matters of child care.
Under the Maternity Benefit Act, the entire financial burden has been imposed on employers and absence of any paternity leave might be counterproductive as it may discourage the private sector, which is driving women employment, from hiring, retaining or promoting women. A recent report confirms my apprehension and worryingly states how the Maternity Benefit Act, in its current form, may put 1.2 crore women and families under acute financial stress. There has been a global shift away from a system which provides for a full employer liability system towards a collective social security scheme which involves contribution from the employee, employer and Government towards maternity and paternity benefits. India needs to move in this direction.
To reduce gender divide and recognize the need for equal participation of parents in childcare, I had the privilege to introduce the Paternity Benefit Bill, 2017 on July 21, 2017, in Lok Sabha. The Bill fixes many problems present in the Maternity Benefit Act.
India currently has a 15-day paternal leave policy for central government employees (under, CCS (Leave) Rule 43-A), and none for the private or unorganized sector; although several private companies have their own paternal leave policies in place.
In future, India must explore parental leave, a period of longer-term leave available to either or both parents to allow them to look after an infant or young child, usually after maternity or paternity leave expires. Generally, women avail parental leave and this weakens their footing in the labour market and exacerbates gender inequalities both in the workplace and in the division of work at home. Eighteen countries offer paid parental leave equivalent to 2/3rd or more of previous earnings. According to the ILO report, most countries are setting out parental leave as a shared entitlement; where either the mother or the father has the right to take parental leave and the parents determine the allocation of leave themselves.
The inception of a decent paternity leave policy may not entirely offset the imbalance, but it could act as a precursor to incremental attitudinal changes, and the blurring of gender role distinctions. India being a developing country also needs to ensure gender equality in childcare for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Now is the time to move towards the grant of paternity benefit to ensure equal participation of both the father and the mother in future.
Rajeev Satav is the Member of Parliament from Hingoli in Maharashtra. He was elected to the 16th Lok Sabha in 2014 elections.