Baby Steps Are For Babies: The Maternity Benefit Act Amendment
At the risk of being accused of never being happy: We have notes on the Maternity Benefit Act Amendment Bill, 2016, passed in the Rajya Sabha last week.
We can congratulate ourselves on improvement with this maternity benefit amendment: the new requirement of the private sector to provide maternity leave; the lengthened time; the mandate for crèches; the provision of maternity leave at all for adoptive mothers and mothers of children birthed via a surrogate. These are all undoubtedly advancements.
But baby steps are for babies. Adult women — and men – and their families deserve more.
Perhaps without meaning to, the Maternity Benefit Act Amendment codifies and imposes a bizarre hierarchy of parenthood: Biological mothers are ranked as the most important, followed by adoptive mothers or mothers of babies born by a surrogate, followed by fathers in distant, beside-the-point, last place. While it’s true biological mothers require time to heal physically, it is equally true that adoptive mothers, mothers of babies born by surrogate and fathers have different but just as valid needs that require equal time with their newborns — finalising legalities in the case of an adoption, for instance, or establishing secure attachment.
To be fair, the stated aim of the amendment to the maternity act was not to empower parents equally to shape and care for their growing families in a way best suited to their circumstances; it was to keep women in the workforce. Any regular reader of this site will know we are avid proponents of this laudable goal.
But the provisions of the amendment to the Maternity Benefit Act are likely to be at best tepidly effective in achieving that.
Happiness at such small, incremental changes that add to a mother’s burden on one side, even as they relieve it on another, is a recipe for complacence.
Lengthening maternity leave to six months with no provision of any kind for paternity leave deepens the divide in parental experiences and reinforces gender inequality at home, which translates into a gender imbalance in the workplace. Mothers, perforce, have a head start of 9+ months (now three, for adoptive mothers and mothers of children born by surrogate) in considering and physically caring for a child.
For parents, many decisions around the division of child care come down to who can do what task, fill what role most quickly and effectively – adroitness that only comes from practice. Denying fathers the time to build this parenting experience entrenches women as primary caretakers and keeps many of the family responsibilities that compete with work solidly on their shoulders.
Even when mothers do return to work, a gap – whether six months or three – at arguably the most integral point of their career will only set them farther behind their male peers who are not allowed to take one. Not only does this perpetuate the cycle of women earning less and advancing more slowly than men, it also disincentivizes employers from hiring women to begin with.
Right at the time most people choose to become parents, they are finally starting to pay dividends to their employers in terms of experience, skill and productivity. By requiring maternity leave but not paternity leave, employers will be more likely to favour men in hiring decisions. After all — why invest in a female employee when you’ll be forced to give her half a year’s leave right when she’s starting to be most valuable to the company? Regardless of whether she’s poor or wealthy, whether the business is small and local, or big and multinational, it doesn’t make good business sense.
Compounding this disincentive is the crèche requirement. If a business employs at least 30 women, it must provide a crèche and allow mothers (not fathers) four visits a day to the facility. This is fantastic news for breastfeeding mothers, but what is the point of allotting access to childcare to women only? For business owners concerned about the bottom line, a simpler solution could very well be to employ fewer women.
The second requirement of the amendment to the maternity act – that a business of 50 people, male or female, provide a crèche – is probably meant to account for this possibility, but its vagueness puts undue burden on businesses and could lead them to avoid hiring parents at all.
Parenting is a complex experience, and legislating around it is probably even more intricate, particularly in a country variations on family structure and roles are as diverse as the people who comprise them. But happiness at such small, incremental changes that add to a mother’s burden on one side, even as they relieve it on another, is a recipe for complacence.
While the improvements in this amendment to the Maternity Benefit Act are encouraging, they lack foresight, lack consideration of implications, and thus stop short of being truly effective. Only when our leaders acknowledge, through law, that a child gives birth not to a mother but to a parent — man or woman, biological or otherwise — will families be empowered and women enabled to remain in the workforce.