Ashapurna Devi sketched out the myriad shades and shapes of the world of women in her revolutionary work, “The First Promise” and the following trilogy; from Satyabati to Subarnalata and finally the oblivion portrayal of Bakulkatha. Containment, distress, constraints tore apart a daughter from her mother, a woman from the society she belonged yet alienated herself and a girl from her subtle yet precious and poignant dreams. “Had Mariam been certain that he would be satisfied with shooting only her, that there was chance he would spare Laila, she might have dropped the shovel,” penned down Hosseini. The dynamic portrayal of Mariam’s sacrifice makes me remind of the endless anatomic performance by women or rather by a mother.
Today the post-modern society smirked with neo liberal and radical ideas marks a new domain for women. Empowerment is now increasingly seen as a process of awareness and conscientization of capacity building leading to greater participation, effective decision making power and control leading to transformative action. With reference to women the power relations it includes their lives at multiple levels, family, community, market and the state. Importantly it involves at the psychological level women’s ability to assert themselves and this is constructed by the gender roles assigned to her.
Contemporary scenario marks the growing number of working women playing “dual roles” in everyday life. Women are increasingly participating in global market without affecting their responsibility in household domain. Recently Indian Parliament passed the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016, at a time when amendments to labor laws are invariably curtailing worker rights and welfare measures, on the day after the world celebrated the International Women’s Day on March 8. The Rajya Sabha had approved the measure for maternity leave that makes India third on the list of countries with most maternity leave. The present bill is an amendment to the Maternity Benefit act, 1961.
Some unnoticed characteristics of this Act are as follows:-
- The Bill protects the employment of women during the time of pregnancy and gives them privilege to full paid absence from work to take care of their child.
- Now on, women who work in the organized sector will be entitled to full paid maternity leave of 26 weeks, up from 12 weeks. The bill will benefit about 1.8 million women.
- The new law will apply to all organization or establishments which have employed 10 or more people. Apart from it, the amended bill also makes it mandatory for employees in organizations or establishments for 30 women or 50 employees, to provide crèche facilities either in the office or in the office or in place within a 500-metre radius. The mother will be allowed four visits to the crèche in a day. This will include her interval for rest.
- The law also permits women to work from if it is possible to do so.
- The new bill recognizes that time is needed for those women who adopt or use a surrogate to bear a child to bond with in the initial months.
- The new bill permits a 12-week maternity leave to commissioning and adapting mothers. The commissioning mother has been defined as “one whose egg is used to create an embryo planted in surrogate’s womb (in other words-a biological mother).” The time of maternity leave will be counted from the date the child is handed over to the adoptive or commissioning mother.
- The Bill also provides for maternity leave of 12 weeks to mother’s adopting a child blow the age of three months as well as to commissioning mothers (defined as biological mother) who uses her egg to have surrogate child. In such cases, a 12 –week period of maternity leave will be calculated from the date the child is handed over to the adoptive or commissioning mother.
- The amendment would ensure that full maternal care is provided during the full bloom period and will encourage more women to join the workforce in the organized sector.
The Ministry of Women and Child Development issued a statement which said, “It is a historic day for women”, adding that the Bill “pave the way for a healthy and secure mother and a well-nourished child.” President Pranab Mukherjee has given assent to the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017 that has made changes in some of the provisions of over 55-year- old law entitling certain benefits to women employees.
Undoubtedly, these and other changes in the law are praiseworthy. The problem is that these changes do not go far enough or not wide enough to cover the women and families who really need these benefits. They also do not cover areas that would have paved the way towards equitable parenting. Ironically, even before these amendments could prove their benefits, last month the Union Cabinet made changes in the Maternity Benefit Programme (MBP) that lopped off a large number of eligible beneficiaries. On the flip side, the MBA leaves out 90% to 97% of the total female workforce in the country which works in the unorganized sector like domestic workers, agricultural laborers and home based ones. The amendments also ignore paternity leave even though male central government employees are eligible for 15 days of such leave and the trend is growing in the private sector. This obviously enforces the patriarchal belief that childcare is entirely the women’s job.
As for the MBP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced with a flourish on 31 December 2016 that the amount to be given to pregnant and lactating mothers would be raised to Rs.6000. however, the union cabinet has recently curtailed the assistance given under this programme to the first live birth. The union cabinet has also not paid heed to the demands that the restriction under the IGMSY like the two- child norm and the age of marriage should be removed. When the demand is for universal and unconditional maternity entitlements which will also cover the most vulnerable women in the unorganized sector, restricting the MBP to the first child seems to be a regressive move.
Giving women maternity benefits has been like a double-edged sword, not only in India but even in advanced economies given the general employment and female participation in the workforce. Drawing from Amartya Sen’s work on ‘Human Capabilities’- an idea drawn from Aristotle a new matrix was created to measure human development. The emphasis was that we need to enhance human well-being flourishing and not on growth of national income as a goal.
Author : Swati Maiti, Catalyst Class of 2018.