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Amendment to Maternity Benefit Act, 1961: Analysis and the Path Ahead

Anyatama Nayak critically analyses certain aspects of the newly introduced Bill on Maternity Benefits in India.

On August 11, the Rajya Sabha passed the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016 that seeks to increase the maternity leave period from the current 12 weeks to 26 weeks.[1] This will benefit a large number of increasing rate of women employees in the working sector.

Women are prone to losing out on opportunities in their professional career due to workplace or employers not being supportive that leads to loss of opportunities and economic independence for a woman. Prior to this Amendment, women were only allowed leave for 12 weeks during the pregnancy period as per the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961.

And the cabinet too gave ex-post facto approval to this Amendment. The Amendment will entitle women to full paid absence from work and will also protect them from job insecurity that arises due to leave during pregnancy. It is estimated that this Amendment will be beneficial to around 1.8 million women who work in the organised sector. Also, the Act adds a mandatory provision of providing a crèche to provide care for the children in the establishments that have 50 or more employees.[2]  These facilities if implemented will assist women in maintaining their economic stability and independence and also improve health of both mothers and new born in the country. With this amendment, the government has addressed the issue that affects women across classes.

However, it is the sad reality that these benefits would not extend to the women who work in the unorganised sector. One of the basic problems arises due to the narrow definition of this sector that the amendment has bestowed. Many women who might be employed in activities where they work from home or in small scale businesses and establishments will not be able to avail such benefit that their counterpart employed in the urban organized sector might gain. A broader definition of who will count as a working woman is necessary in the amendment as it is unjust to leave a large population of women who are daily wage workers and may not have a fixed employment. It might leave them with a chance of being unemployed and economically unstable during the period of pregnancy. With a country where malnutrition and death during childbirth are high, leaving out women from such benefit that might protect them is a lost opportunity.

According to a UN Report of 2014, as many as 50,000 women died during child birth in India.[3] With such staggering statistics it is necessary to provide as many benefits as possible during pregnancy to protect and benefit women. The Rapid Survey of Children conducted by the Women and Child Development Ministry in 2015 unveiled that 29.4% children are underweight, 15% of children were in the category of wasted that is low weight for their height and 38.7% had stunted growth.[4] All these statistics go on to prove the importance of health during pregnancy as the growth of a child is highly dependent on a good health during birth. The World Health Organization has also established the importance of breastfeeding as it protects an infant from diarrhoea and other infections that can be acquired.

The importance of optimal breastfeeding is highlighted by saying that it can save over 800,000 lives of children under the age of five every year.[5] Looking at these facts paralleled to the report of 2007 prepared by the National Commission for Enterprises in Unorganized and Informal Sector, stated that 96% of the women work in unorganized sector. It can be clearly seen how important it is to extend the benefits of this amendment and how leaving these women out in such peculiar way is unfair and unreasonable.

Another peculiarity that has been pointed out by various activists too is that the leave is reduced to 12 weeks if the woman already has two or more kids. This proviso is unwarranted for as the level of care and attention required for a child doesn’t decrease. Such a proviso shouldn’t exist as it wrongly discriminates between people.

Another important step that has been seen is that with the amendment there have also been members of parliament who have pitched the matter of paternity leaves to the spotlight.[6] This would help in enabling fathers to be active and involved in childcare.

However, it is important to notice that this is a partial victory and a step towards better working conditions and overall welfare of women in the country. The loose ends of the Amendment however need to be tied and other shortcomings and difficulties need to be traversed.

References-

[1] Maternity Benefit Amendment Bill 2016 passed in Rajya Sabha, http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/maternity-benefit-amendment-bill-2016-passed-in-rajya-sabha-2968243/

[2] Paid maternity leave increased to 6 months, The Hindu, August 11 2016,http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/paid-maternity-leave-increased-to-6-months/article8970558.ece

[3]The Millennium Development Goals Report 2014, http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/2014%20MDG%20report/MDG%202014%20English%20web.pdf

[4]In fact: Landmark maternity Bill has a few loose ends, The Indian Express, August 18 2016, http://indianexpress.com/article/explained/maternity-leave-bill-passed-maneka-gandhi-lok-sabha-2981695/

[5] Ibid.

[6] Women MPs pitch for paternity leave, The Hindu, August 12 2016, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/rajya-sabha-passes-maternity-benefits-amendments/article8974141.ece

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