In 1917, Mahatma Gandhi said, “the nation walks with one leg only”. Even after more than a hundred years, he could have said the same about the Indian economy. The participation of women in the labour force continues to be one of the lowest.
One of the ways it was sought to be addressed was through the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961. It was later amended in 2017 to increase maternity leave entitlement from 12 weeks to 26 weeks for the first two births. The amendments were a recognition that it was socially and economically imperative to reverse the decline in women labour force participation which dropped to 27% in the current year from 35% in 1990. But what about the fathers?
According to the All India and Central Civil Services Rules, the central government employees are entitled to avail 15 days of paternity leave, even if the child is adopted.
The Paternity Benefit Bill, 2017, will see equal parental benefits to both the mother and the father. Congress Member of Parliament from Maharashtra Rajeev Satav, who tabled a private member bill on this issue, argues, “Child care is the joint responsibility of both parents. They must devote time to the newborn to ensure its proper well-being.”
In legal terms, men do not enjoy the same privileges as women do on the birth of their child. With the changing times, many companies in India are providing paternity leave, but there are no legal provisions as such.
UNICEF advocates a 16-week paid paternity leave. This leave provides an opportunity for fathers to create bonds with their newborns. The report further states that around 90 million newborn kids are don’t have their fathers around to spend time with them. The report also asserts that the presence of the father is equally important for a child to grow into a healthier and happier individual. International Labour Organization also points out that fathers who take leave, two weeks or more, immediately after the birth of their child, are more likely to be involved with their young children.
UNICEF report lends support to these findings and claims that the presence of a father had a positive impact on the mental health of a child. It also boosts his or her self-esteem.
Around 90 countries do not provide paternity leave, and India is one of them that deprives fathers of an adequate and much needed time with their newborns. Several other countries like Congo and Brazil with high infant populations like ours have paid paternity leave policies, even though they are relatively short-term entitlements. In the more advanced countries and several industries like finance and technology, a sort of arms race has emerged to provide mothers as well as fathers the best paternal leave benefits possible.
The idea that men have to be the breadwinners also causes them to believe that a paternal leave will make them look less committed to their jobs and could, in the long run, derail their careers. If a company provides the same benefit to both people and encourage both to take the leave, there is no opportunity for bias. Even wives could benefit, as women whose husbands take paternity leave have increased career earnings and have a decreased chance of depression and sickness in the nine months after childbirth. The first few weeks of an infant’s life reshape everything regardless of how much a couple plans to share the workload. Conventionally, the mothers are only involved in taking care of the newborn. From breastfeeding to changing diapers, the onus of childcare is only on the woman. A paternity leave changes this and fathers being involved early on in the care of their children will translate to equal sharing, equal role, and equal happiness.
The cultural hurdles will be far more difficult to cross. Women’s role in society and the economy has been transformed over the last half-century but for long we have held the notion that bringing up a child is a mother’s job but we tend to forget that it is the presence of both the parents that make an infant, happy, mentally strong and self-confident a father cannot play a secondary role in taking care of an infant because while s/he may need the mother the most, they need their father too.